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Buying services - your rights

The term 'services' covers a wide variety of work from small repair jobs or home improvements to tv/broadband/mobile phone contracts.

The Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982 states that when work is carried out by a trader it should be done with reasonable care and skill, in a reasonable time and for a reasonable charge. Goods supplied as part of a service must be of satisfactory quality, fit for purpose and as described.

The regulations that deal with unfair contact terms are the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999. You are entitled to challenge standard contract terms that may be unfair, unreasonable or that restrict your statutory rights.

If you agreed to a contract for a service by distance means (such as online) or off premises (such as after a doorstep call by a trader), or at home and the contract was financed by credit arranged by the trader, you may have a cooling off period during which you can cancel.

In the guide
Your rights
Before agreeing the service contract
If something goes wrong
Withholding payment
Rogue traders
How to complain effectively
What should I put in my letter of complaint?
What happens if the trader does not reply or ignores me?

Your rights
Under the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982, you are entitled to expect that a service provided by a trader is carried out:

  • with reasonable care and skill
  • in a reasonable time (if there is no specific time agreed)
  • for a reasonable charge (if no fixed price was set in advance)

Any goods supplied as part of the service contract must be:

  • of satisfactory quality
  • fit for their purpose
  • as described

Please see our 'Buying Goods - Your Rights' leaflet for more information.

'Standard' contract terms have to be fair to consumers. The regulations that deal with unfair contact terms are the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999. A trader's contract terms must be clear and written in plain language so that you can easily understand them. They must not give a trader an unfair advantage over you in terms of their responsibilities and your rights. Terms that a trader individually agrees with you such as those that concern the service or its price, must be clear, but the regulations do not deal with whether or not they are unfair. If you believe a standard contract term is unfair you are entitled to challenge it in court if necessary. If there is any doubt about what the term means, the meaning that favours you will apply.

Under the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013 you may have cancellation rights where the contract for the supply of a service or the supply of goods as part of a service is an off-premises contract. This means it was agreed in your home, your place of work or during an excursion arranged by the trader to promote and sell their services away from their business premises. For example a double glazing contract agreed during a visit to your house Please see our 'Buying at Home - 'off premises'contracts explained' leaflet for more information.

Also under the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013 you may have cancellation rights where the contract for the supply of a service or the supply of goods as part of a service is a distance contract. This means it was made without face-to-face contact between you and the trader using distance means, such as internet, phone and mail order. For example a mobile phone contract agreed on a website Please see our 'Buying by internet, phone and mail order -'distance' contracts explained' leaflet for more information.

Under the Consumer Rights (Payment Surcharges) Regulations 2012, traders are banned from charging fees to consumers that are excessive for using payment methods such as credit and debit cards. The fees charged must reflect the actual cost to the trader of using that particular payment process. The regulations apply to most sales and service contracts but excludes some contracts, such as those for social and health services, certain financial services and food and drink delivered by regular roundspeople. A contract term relating to requirement to pay a fee is unenforceable against you to the extent of the excess charged. If you have paid an excessive fee, the excess must be repaid to you. If you believe a trader's fees are excessive report it to the Citizens Advice consumer service.

If you enter a contract because a trader misled you or because the trader used an aggressive commercial practice, the Consumer Protection (Amendment) Regulations 2014 give you rights to redress - the right to unwind the contract, the right to a discount and the right to damages. Please see our 'Misleading and aggressive practices - your right to redress' leaflet for more information.

If you sign an agreement in your home for a service (which may include goods) and the trader organises finance to pay for that service, you should receive copies of the agreement at that time. You have the right to cancel five days from the time you receive the second copy of the credit agreement from the finance provider. The cancellation applies to the contract for the service as well. Please see our 'Your rights when buying on credit' leaflet for more information.

Before agreeing the service contract
Research the service you require before you enter into an agreement with a trader. Compare prices and depending on the nature of the service, obtain at least three written quotations from traders rather than estimates. An estimate may vary as it gives a general outline of the work and a guide price, but a quotation is a fixed and binding price for specific work. The total price must include VAT if you are buying as a consumer. Make sure the price you have been quoted includes all costs and that there are no hidden 'extras' that will be added in later. Obtain a detailed written contract and a detailed invoice once the work is complete.

There are some traders that are legally required to hold specific qualifications that relate to their business. They may also be a member of a relevant trade or professional body. Any claims about qualifications and membership must be accurate. You should check claims of membership of trade associations or approval by official bodies (Please see our 'Trade associations and regulatory bodies leaflet' for more information). Anyone working with gas must register by law with Gas Safe (telephone 0800 408 5500). Part P of the Building Regulations requires most electrical work in the home to be carried out by an electrician registered with a government-approved scheme. You must be given safety and compliance certificates to show that the work meets the requirements of the Building Regulations.

Try to avoid paying cash in advance unless you have to but if you do, pay as little as possible. You could lose money paid in advance. If you pay by credit card or on finance arranged by the trader, you may have rights against the finance provider under the Consumer Credit Act 1974, should the work prove unsatisfactory or the trader goes out of business before completion. Please see our 'Your rights when buying on credit' leaflet for more information.

If something goes wrong
If the service is unsatisfactory or has not been completed on time, there are a number of options open to you:

WORK NOT DONE ON TIME
When work is not completed on time or within a reasonable time, you can write to the trader to make time 'of the essence of the contract'. This means that you set a specific date for the work to be finished and if the trader fails to meet the deadline, you can consider them to be in breach of contract. You can obtain other quotations and have the work completed by another trader, holding the original trader liable for the costs. If you have extra expenses as a result of the trader's breach of contract, you may also be entitled to claim them.

WORK NOT SATISFACTORY
In most cases, you should allow the trader the opportunity to put things right. Your right to claim damages if the dispute goes to court could be affected if you have not allowed the trader this opportunity. Tell the trader what the problems are and what you want the trader to do. Confirm this in writing with a deadline for the remedial work to be completed. Give notice that after this deadline, you will obtain quotations from another trader and seek to recover costs from the original trader in court if necessary.

UNAUTHORISED WORK

If you have a contract with a trader to provide a service for you (which may or may not include the supply of goods) and the trader carries out additional work or provides goods without obtaining your permission beforehand, you may not have to pay for the unauthorised work/goods. Depending on the circumstances, you may want to consider the following:

  • discuss the full facts with the trader and consider accepting that the extra work was required and pay a reasonable sum
  • inform the trader that you will not pay for the unauthorised work/goods and ask them to undo the work and remove the goods and replace with the original ones
  • negotiate a reduction in the price, taking account of the fact that the work was unauthorised

If the trader refused to release your goods and claims that the work was authorised, they may be entitled to exercise a lien over the goods (this is a legal right to hold disputed goods until payment is made). In these circumstances, the only way you can recover possession is to 'pay under protest' and to pursue your claim for reimbursement - it's important to seek advice about paying under protest from Citizens Advice consumer service.

GOODS NOT DELIVERED

The Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013 set out the rules that apply to the delivery of goods that are part of a combined goods and services contract. The trader must deliver the goods to you unless you have agreed otherwise. The goods must be delivered without undue delay or in any event not more than 30 days after the day on which you entered the contract. This does not prevent you and the trader from agreeing your own arrangements for delivery but you should ensure this arrangement is written into the contract.

If:

  • the trader refuses to deliver the goods
  • the period for delivery was an essential part of the contract, for example you needed the goods for an event and you advised the trader of this when you contracted, taking account all relevant circumstances, which the trader failed to meet, or
  • you told the trader before you entered into the contract, that the period for delivery was essential, and they failed to meet it
  • you make time of the essence for delivery (you set a date) usually in writing and the trader fails to deliver by that time you are entitled to cancel the contract and claim a full refund.  

If you order multiple goods from the trader and some of them are not delivered on time or not at all, you have an alternative to ending the contract. You can cancel the order for any of the goods or reject goods that have been delivered. The trader must refund you for the part of the order you cancelled or for the goods you rejected. Where goods form part of a 'commercial unit', for example kitchen units, you cannot cancel part of the order, you have to cancel the whole order. These regulations do not prevent you from seeking other remedies for late delivery if you so wish.

You become responsible for the goods when you, or a person identified by you to take delivery, takes actual possession of them. Until that time, the trader is responsible for them even if they use a carrier. If you organise your own carrier, then the trader is only responsible for the goods until your carrier takes possession of them. 

Withholding payment
If you are not happy with work, you may want to consider withholding some of the payment until the work has been completed to a satisfactory standard. Write to the trader setting out your complaint, the reasons why some of the payment has been withheld, what you want the trader to do and by when. Be prepared to negotiate.

Rogue traders
If you believe you have been the victim of a trader who has engaged in unfair trading practices such as cold calling to offer home maintenance services, online scams, overcharging for work, you should complain to Citizens Advice consumer service and your case will be passed to trading standards.

How to complain effectively
Once you have established what your rights are and you have a clear idea about what you want the trader to do, you should take the following steps:

Make sure you have all the relevant documentation, such as the estimate or quotation, the contract, the guarantee or warranty (if you were given one) and the credit agreement (if any).

Collect any evidence you can to support your claim - videos and photographs for example.

Act quickly. Speak to someone in authority - the owner of the firm or a customer services manager within a company. Explain your problem calmly but firmly and ask for your complaint to be dealt with. Always keep a record of the name of the person you spoke to and his/her contact details and also keep a note of what was said. When dealing with sole traders or partnerships, it is important to get the name(s) of the owner(s) of the business.

Remember that if you feel  the trader has engaged in an unfair trading practice, you should report it to Citizens Advice consumer service so the complaint can be referred to trading standards.

If you do not want to speak directly to the trader, confirm the details of your complaint in writing or by email. Send your letter by recorded delivery and make sure you keep a copy for yourself - you may need it as evidence later if the matter is unresolved. Keep copies of emails sent and received. Set out what you would like the trader to do to resolve the complaint and set a reasonable deadline for a reply.

If you pay for the service by credit card or on finance arranged by the trader and if it costs more than £100 and less than £30,000, you are protected by the Consumer Credit Act 1974. Section 75 of the Act makes the finance provider as responsible as the trader for a breach of contract or a misrepresentation. You are entitled to take action against the trader, the finance provider or both. This does not apply to charge cards or debit cards. Send the finance provider a letter or email, which should include your account number and other relevant information from your credit agreement, and set out the details of the complaint you have against the trader. Include a copy of the letter you sent to the trader. Please see our 'Your rights when buying on credit' leaflet for more information.

Depending on the type of service you contracted the trader to provide, they may be prepared to carry out a home visit if this assists them establish what the problem is. It is wise to have someone with you when the visit goes ahead.

If the trader makes an offer to settle the complaint, you can either accept or continue to negotiate. However, you should bear in mind that accepting an offer usually means that you cannot ask for more later. If you are uncertain whether or not to accept the offer, you should seek further advice.

Find out if the trader is a member of a trade association. Some trade associations provide a dispute resolution scheme as part of their service so if you have a complaint against one of their members, they can assist in resolving the problem. In some cases they will be able to provide experts to examine work/products if the nature of the problem is in dispute. Please see our  'Trade Associations and Regulatory Bodies' leaflet for more information.

Alternatively, if you choose not to use a trade association or the trader does not accept any of the evidence you have presented in support of your claim and you remain in dispute, you may need to obtain an independent report  to establish what the problem is, how it was caused, what it will take to sort out the problem and who is to blame. You may be able to come to an agreement with the trader to obtain a joint independent report, perhaps splitting the cost so that you can both be satisfied about the impartiality of the opinion. Of course, the trader does not have to agree to this, but if you make this request in writing and the trader rejects it, they may find it difficult to argue later that they have acted reasonably.

If someone has been injured as a result of the work or if you believe a criminal offence may have been committed, you should contact the Citizens Advice consumer service for further advice before allowing the trader to rectify the problem.

What should I put in my complaint letter/email?

  • make sure your letter/email is sent to the correct address
  • set out the details of the contract you have with the trader - the work you asked the trader to do, when it was done and how much you paid
  • explain what the problem is, what has happened since the problem occurred and set it out in date order
  • state what you want the trader to do, such as repair, replacement, refund or compensation and when by (this must be a reasonable time period)
  • make sure you include the details of any additional expenses you have incurred as a result of the problem caused by the trader. Support this claim with receipts

Please see our 'Writing an effective letter of complaint' leaflet and template letters for more information.

What happens if the trader does not reply or ignores me?
Consider all options open to you to resolve the dispute but you may eventually have to take court action. The limit on the amount you can claim in the small claims court is £10,000. Small claims are automatically referred to mediation but if you then proceed to the small claims court, the court may not accept an expert report you have obtained prior to taking legal action. The court may direct you and the trader to appoint a single expert. If you and the trader cannot agree the choice of expert or the arrangements for paying the expert's fee, then you or the trader must apply to the court for further directions. The court would then make a decision about the expert. The limit for recovering expert's fees in court is £750.00. Please see our 'Getting Evidence to Prove Your Claim' leaflet for more information. If your claim is above £10,000 then you should seek legal advice.

You can contact your local court or visit the court claim for money page of www.gov.uk website for information on how to start your claim. However they cannot provide you with legal advice or comment on the likely success of your claim. You can also start a claim online at the HM Courts and Tribunal Service's Money Claim Online.

However, you must remember that court should be viewed as a last resort and even if your claim is successful there may be costs involved in enforcing a judgement.

Please note
This leaflet is not an authoritative interpretation of the law and is intended only for guidance. Any legislation referred to, while still current, may have been amended from the form in which it was originally enacted.

For further information please contact the Citizens Advice consumer service, which provides free, confidential and impartial advice on consumer issues. Visit www.adviceguide.org.uk or call the Citizens Advice consumer helpline on 03454 04 05 06.

Relevant legislation
Consumer Credit Act 1974
Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982
Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999
Consumer Rights (Payment Surcharges) Regulations 2012
Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013
Consumer Protection (Amendment) Regulations 2014

Last reviewed/updated: December 2014

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Northumberland County Council, Trading Standards Service, Loansdean, Morpeth, Northumberland NE61 2AP
Telephone: 0845 600 6400 (For out of normal hours this number has voicemail facility)   Fax: 01670 626059
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