The most common consumer complaint is that consumer goods or services are defective or not of the standard expected by the Purchaser.
The starting point for considering what remedy may be available to a consumer in these circumstances is the terms of the contract for the supply of goods or service. The terms of supply may be set out in a written document or by way of verbal agreement.
SALE OF GOODS ACT 1979
The modern law is contained in the Sale of Goods Act 1979 – as amended. The effect of this legislation is to water down the legal doctrine of “caveat emptor” (buyer beware) in certain defined situations. To be caught by the requirements the sale or supply must take place “in the course of a business”:-
(a) a sale of a bar of chocolate by a confectioner is clearly in the course of business
(b) a sale by the same confectioner of his delivery van – is also in the course of his business
(c) a sale by the confectioner of his private motor car would not be
Once in play the statutory provisions are:
(1) S14(2) Sale of Goods Act 1979 (as amended) – implies a term that good supplied will be of “satisfactory quality”
(2) S14(3) Sale of Goods Act 1979 (as amended) implies a term that goods sold will be suitable for the purpose for which these goods are commonly used – or for the purpose which the purchaser intended to use them when it was made known to the seller and the buyer relied upon the seller
The following should be noted:
(i) satisfactory quality includes freedom from minor defects, durability and safety. For example, new kitchen goods sold with a scratch will be covered
(ii) In relation to second hand goods the standard expected will be lower. A buyer is expected to appreciate that a second hand motor car may develop unexpected mechanical problems shortly after purchase.
If a consumer can prove that a Seller has failed to deliver goods or services of appropriate quality – what remedies are available?
(I) The starting point may be to consider the sales policy of the Seller or whether there is in place a “guarantee” or overseeing trade body. Some of these offer “gold plated” opportunities to seek a refund etc which may exceed your legal entitlement.
(II) A second approach is to consider civil proceedings for breach of contract (citing the implied terms under Sale of Goods Act) or misrepresentation. Misrepresentation occurs where a vendor makes a false statement of fact and the buyer believed this statement and made the purchase in reliance upon it. Within successful civil proceedings the court has historically been able to award financial compensation – or allow a buyer to reject the goods. However, pursuant to the Supply of Goods to Consumers Regulations 2002 a court may now also require a seller to repair or replace the goods or substitute a reduced price.
It is important for a consumer to understand that if they wish to “reject” an item they must act promptly or be deemed to have accepted the fault.
(III) There are additional and rigorous liabilities where a vendor sells a product which is both defective and dangerous. In these cases obligations known as “strict liability” are imposed upon the seller. A motor car veering out of control because of a mechanical defect – so that the owner is injured - is a good example.
(IV) Trading Standards: There are now a plethora of regulations requiring businesses to trade fairly. Detailing of these is beyond the scope of this brief note but Trading Standards are empowered to enforce both civil and criminal sanctions.