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Coronavirus – Consumer refund rights for services - UK

  • United Kingdom
  • Commercial and IT
  • Coronavirus - Contractual issues
  • Coronavirus - Regulatory issues
  • Consumer

22-04-2020

The escalation of the COVID-19 outbreak has resulted in many businesses being unable to perform their contractual obligations to their customers, whether by being unable to perform at all, or finding that they are having to delay performance significantly as they try and mitigate the impact of the outbreak on their businesses.  This unprecedented situation has seen businesses struggling to balance the need to protect their ultimate survival with the rights owed to their retail customers. 

The Consumer Rights Act 2015 (“CRA”) provides a generic framework for how businesses must deal with individual consumers in the UK, including providing a set of legal remedies that a consumer will be entitled to if the business is unable to perform its contractual obligation to the customer.  Consumer may have additional rights depending on the services, e.g., for certain travel and financial services products.    

Can the customer demand a refund?

Under the CRA, a customer will not be entitled to an automatic refund, unless the relevant service cannot be re-performed in accordance with the contract.  The following legal remedies are prescribed in the CRA:

  • The customer can initially ask for re-performance of the services if this is possible;
  • Any re-performance must be done within a reasonable time and without significant inconvenience to the customer.  What constitutes “reasonable time” and “significant inconvenience” will depend on the nature of the relevant services.
  • If re-performance cannot be done , the customer can receive an “appropriate refund”, which can be anything up to a full refund.  Refunds must be paid within 14 days.

Can you rely on a “force majeure” clause?

Enforcing “force majeure” clauses will be difficult, because any attempt to limit or exclude liability will be assessable for fairness.  An unfair term will not be enforceable against the customer. You can read our comprehensive guide to force majeure here.

Goodwill remedy options

Because of the CRA’s tiered remedy approach, a blanket refusal to offer customers a refund could constitute a breach of the CRA. 

Of course, a businesses can offer additional or different remedies to customers in place of these legal remedies, but the customer is not obliged to accept them.  Where alternatives are being offered, care must be taken to avoid misleading the customer about their legal rights, as this could constitute a criminal offence. 

CMA taskforce

It is also worth bearing in mind that the Consumer Markets Authority (“CMA”) has launched a new taskforce to deal with Covid-19 related consumer matters, which will look to counter unfair commercial and misleading practices being used with consumers, which you can find out more about here.

What you should be doing?

Understanding your customers’ legal rights is essential to enable you to deal fairly and transparently with customers, and to mitigate reputational damage which might affect longer- term prospects with these customers.  But, taking a conciliatory approach can result in you coming to alternative agreements with your customers, which will also help your business to weather the current crisis.