The Covid-19 pandemic has affected virtually every facet of our lives. In the wake of a national lockdown, movement restrictions, and social distancing to help lower infections, consumers are increasingly purchasing goods and services online. Unfortunately, this has also been a source of some great challenges to consumers. The media has widely reported the rise of price gouging for basic consumer goods, misleading and deceptive marketing practices from online selling, and an increase in consumer scams.
The CMA launched its Covid-19 task force early last year to monitor market development and identify the unfair business practices consumers are facing in the current climate. One certain thing is your consumer rights have not changed following the pandemic. Most businesses are trying to do the right thing but there are just as many that are failing to comply with the law. Of course, if you are going to enforce your consumer rights, you have to know what they are. Without further ado, let’s get started:
Right to Reject
Under the Consumer Rights Act, all goods and services must be as described, of satisfactory quality, and fit for purpose. If your product doesn’t meet any of these set standards, you have a right to return and you could be entitled to repairs, replacement, or refund. This right is limited to 30 days from the day you take ownership of the product, after which businesses are not legally required to take the item back. If your product develops a fault outside the 30-day right to reject but within 6 months after purchase, you can allow the seller to repair or replace the product.
With many stores closed due to lockdown, consumers are finding it hard to return faulty goods within the stipulated timeframe. The good news is many businesses are agreeing to longer return periods to allow customers more time to return unwanted products. While they are not legally required to do so, those with a return policy must adhere to it.
If the current lockdown makes it difficult to enforce your right to return within the stipulated time, then perhaps you should email the company. This will show that you intended to return the item within the accepted timeframe but couldn’t due to lockdown or restricted movements.
Both business and consumers should be aware of their rights when dealing with returns. Note that these rights can differ depending on whether the product is a good or service or whether the purchase was made online or in-store.
Right to Refund
Consumers across the country have had to cancel weddings, flights, trips, etc, due to restricted travel. And as mentioned above, they are also struggling to return faulty products on time. Whatever the case, consumers have had their requests about refunds ignored, leaving them in financial limbo. We are here to tell you that you have a right to refund. In fact, the CMA has provided guidance about consumer protection law with regards to cancellations and refunds during the pandemic. The consumer should expect a full refund if the business cancels a contract without offering any of the promised products. Another instance is when government public health measures like lockdown or movement restrictions mean that the consumer cannot or is not allowed to use the products and consequently, either the business or consumer cancels the contract.
The CMA allows businesses to offer vouchers, credits, or rescheduling as an alternative to a refund but the consumer should not be pressured or misled into accepting such offers.
That being said, there are limited exceptions to full refunds. For starters, if the consumer has already received some of the services, they are only entitled to a refund equivalent to what they have paid for in advance for which has not yet been provided.
This exception is also relevant to ongoing contracts. For example, if a business is unable to provide services due to government health measures, it can be allowed to deduct a contribution to its already incurred costs with regards to the contract in question. And, if a consumer makes regular payments for regular services, they can withhold payment if the services cannot be provided.
Right to Challenge Unfair Contract Terms
A contract term is deemed unfair under the Consumer Rights Act if it causes a significant imbalance in the parties’ rights and obligations arising under the contract, to the detriment of the consumer. In certain instances, businesses might put unfair clauses in contracts like requiring you to pay arbitrary or non-refundable advance payments or even inputting cancellation charges. Given the increasing need to cancel services due to Covid-19 health restrictions, these clauses are not fair to the consumer. The good news is, as a consumer, you have the right to challenge unfair contract terms in court.
Exploitative Pricing and Sales Practices
Another huge challenge for consumers following the Coronavirus pandemic is the proliferation of price gouging for medical equipment as well as basic consumer goods. The mandatory use of face masks has increased its demand exponentially. Other products that have seen a significant increase in prices include hand sanitizers, bleach products, antibacterial handwash, medicines, and a range of personal hygiene products.
Under the current Consumer Rights Act, businesses are free to price their products as they see fit as long as the new prices are communicated to consumers beforehand. Although no specific laws are addressing the issue of price gouging, the CMA warns businesses not to exploit the pandemic by charging exorbitant prices, making misleading/deceptive claims about the efficacy of equipment, or falsely claiming that a product can prevent or cure Covid-19. Consumers are advised to report any instances of price gouging. And, the CMA will make use of their existing powers, to crack down on any business found to be exploiting consumers during this time of crisis.
As you can see, your consumer rights are still viable despite the current situation. But you may have to fight harder to enforce them as businesses also struggle to stay afloat amid the pandemic. For business owners, keep in mind that consumers will remember businesses that treated them well and played fairly.