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Covid cancellations: couples still left out of pocket by wedding venues keeping their cash

Miserly venues and a toothless enforcement system are failing distressed couples on cancellations and refunds

Covid cancellations: couples still left out of pocket by wedding venues keeping their cash

Many couples are still struggling to get the refunds they’re legally entitled to for weddings cancelled due to the pandemic.

A year after we first raised the alarm that venues were leaving couples out of pocket, Which? has found some hotels, barns and country houses are still not treating couples fairly.

According to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), there were 2,400 cancellation and refund complaints about weddings in the year to March 2021 – with an average of £6,500 at stake.

The CMA issued guidance for businesses on contract cancellations and refunds in April 2020, and updated advice specifically for the wedding industry in September 2020.

The guidance sets out the CMA’s view of the law in terms of refunds, but until the regulator is given greater powers to tackle rogue businesses it’s guidance isn’t legally binding. Only a court can decide how the law applies in each case.

As a result, many couples have struggled to get their venues to pay the refunds they are due.

And with coronavirus restrictions and laws changing so rapidly, it can also be confusing for couples to navigate if and when they are entitled to a refund.

Which? has spoken to five couples who collectively risk losing more than £26,000.

Here, we look at their stories and explain why greater CMA powers would ensure consumers are better protected from unfair business practices.

Wedding cancellations and your refund rights

  • The CMA’s guidance states the starting point under the law is you should be offered a full refund (including non-refundable deposits) for weddings prevented from going ahead on the agreed date by national or local lockdown laws.
  • You also shouldn’t be liable for any further payments if your wedding can’t go ahead due to restrictions.
  • If your wedding can go ahead but with significant changes – for example many fewer guests due to restrictions – you’re also entitled to a refund.
  • There are some circumstances where you might not be eligible for a full refund. For example venues and suppliers can deduct some money from the refund if costs were incurred before it was clear the wedding can’t go ahead due to lockdown laws. If this is the case, you can ask for an itemised breakdown of costs.

Find out more: your rights if you have a problem with a wedding supplier

‘We lost a lot of money and didn’t have any service’

Danielle and Ryan, County Durham, were due to get married at Le Petit Chateau, Otterburn, in May 2020. They planned for 100 day guests and 140 guests in the evening.

In March 2020, when lockdown restrictions were on the cards, the venue postponed the wedding to March 2021 and gave the couple a new contract for the rescheduled date.

But when it got to September, the government announced new restrictions, introducing a 15-guest limit to weddings, and said to assume the restrictions would last for six months.

Danielle saw the CMA’s guidance and felt confident they could get their money back, but the venue asked them to postpone and said they wouldn’t get a refund if they did cancel.

The venue argues that the couple’s contract hasn’t been frustrated and the CMA’s guidance doesn’t apply because it wasn’t certain that the 15-person guest limit that came into force in September 2020 would still be in place on their rescheduled date in March 2021. Therefore, it treated the couple’s request as a cancellation rather than a frustrated contract, and under its cancellation policy they weren’t entitled to their money back.

Eventually the venue did offer them a settlement of £4,011 which it then increased to £5,000 in December. Danielle and Ryan were still more than £5,000 out of pocket and without a wedding day to look forward to.

‘By this point we were sick of it and didn’t know how long it was going to go on for so we accepted their offer,’ Danielle said. ‘We lost a lot of money and didn’t have any service from them. There might have been some admin involved but definitely not enough to total more than £5,000.’

They’ve since put in a claim with their wedding insurer and are waiting to hear back.

La Petit Chateau told us on a small number of occasions, where it hasn’t been possible to rearrange a wedding, it has resulted in a full or partial refund. It says the CMA’s guidance on refunds is misleading and confusing, and it welcomes any work towards improving it.

It says it made enormous efforts to find an alternative wedding solution for the couple and decided to make a refund based on the CMA Bijou Weddings Group case, despite believing that the guidance was not applicable.

Couple lose ‘non-refundable’ booking fee

Sarah (not the case study’s real name) booked her wedding at the Beverley Barn, Yorkshire, for July 2020 with 120 guests.

The venue cancelled in May 2020 but couldn’t offer a like-for-like postponement date. Sarah penciled in a Sunday date in July 2021, but later decided to ask for a full refund instead.

‘We looked at the CMA’s statement and felt confident that we’d be entitled to a refund, so that’s what we decided to do,’ said Sarah.

But the venue refused to refund the couple the £700 booking fee they had already paid towards the wedding, despite the CMA stating that non-refundable fees should be returned for weddings cancelled due to the pandemic.

It explained that work towards their wedding had already been undertaken to justify keeping the fee, but didn’t provide an itemised breakdown of these costs when Sarah and her partner asked for one.

‘We were stressed and upset,’ Sarah said. ‘I was really busy at work because I’m a mental health nurse and was working extra hours through the pandemic. We knew we could go to the small claims court but were worried about losing and having to pay their fees. We felt out of our depth.’

At this point, the couple decided to stop trying: ‘We felt it was a losing battle and decided to try and forget about it and deal with everything else that Covid threw at us.’

Which? contacted The Beverley Barn for a comment but it failed to respond.

The CMA told us it expects wedding providers to pay people the refunds they’re due, whether these are full or partial.

It says it has clearly set out its position on refunds and couples can refer to its interpretation of the law when taking up their case with their wedding provider.

Powers to tackle businesses that break consumer law

The CMA’s guidance is clear, but it’s toothless in enforcing it’s own guidance. It needs stronger enforcement powers to conduct investigations and impose appropriate fines on companies that breach the law, whether in the weddings industry or in other sectors.

Other UK regulators such as the Financial Conduct Authority and the Information Commissioner’s Office can already levy fines on companies, which the CMA cannot.

And in other countries, including Canada, Australia, Greece and Italy, authorities can also levy fines against companies that break consumer law.

The limits to the CMA’s powers meant that early on in the pandemic, when there was clear evidence of price gouging in UK markets, it lacked the power to take action. But, authorities in Greece, Canada and Australia were all able to issue fines and jail sentences.

We believe the CMA must be given the right tools to swiftly and efficiently prosecute companies who have clearly broken consumer law.

Which? Consumer Rights Expert Adam French, says: ‘It is disappointing that some wedding venues are still ignoring guidance from the regulator and charging couples for circumstances completely beyond their control. This is especially frustrating for couples when they rearranged their wedding date early on in the pandemic at the request of the venue.

‘The current system allows rogue businesses to slip through the net and does not punish those harming consumers. The Competition and Markets Authority must be given stronger powers to hold businesses accountable and fine those that break the law.’

What to do if you’re waiting on a refund

If you’re still struggling to get a refund from your venue or suppliers, here are some steps you can take.

1. Look closely at your contract for any unfair terms and conditions

Your venue or supplier might try to impose T&Cs that mean they don’t have to refund you.

The CMA says a court would be likely to find these terms unfair and unenforceable.

Look out for cancellation clauses that say you must pay in full if you cancel, or variation clauses that say the venue can provide a service that’s substantially different from what was initially agreed.

These clauses are likely to be unfair and unenforceable.

You can use our letter template for challenging terms and conditions if you feel that this is the case.

2. Contact your bank

If you paid with your credit card you can make a Section 75 claim to try and get your money back.

And if you paid by debit card, it’s worth trying a chargeback claim to see if you can get your money back this way.

3. Make a claim with your wedding insurer

It’s worth checking your T&Cs in your wedding insurance and making a claim if your venue isn’t being cooperative.

And if you’re not happy with your insurer’s response you can make a complaint to the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS).

The majority of complaints about wedding insurance claims to the FOS were upheld according to its latest complaints data.

4. Complain to Trading Standards and the CMA

You can report a venue or wedding business to Trading Standards. There are different routes for doing this depending on which nation you’re in:

And you can also report a business to the CMA for behaving unfairly during the coronavirus outbreak, though it is unable to provide advice or support to individuals.

Which? Legal services*

One of our lawyers recently helped a Which? member settle a claim for his wedding venue after they refused to refund him his ‘non-refundable’ deposit.

If you’re looking for legal advice before taking action against a wedding company, you too can get in touch with our Which? Legal team who offer affordable advice over the phone and by email.

Our team of legal advisers will give you tailored information on your rights and next steps, so you can handle your issue confidently.

To find out how Which? Legal can help you, call us on 0117 405 5695 (Monday – Friday 8.30am – 6pm, excluding Bank Holidays) or visit Which? Legal to join.

*only £9/month plus a £29 joining fee. You can cancel anytime.

 

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