Holidaymakers with refund credit notes could end up paying more than £100 in legal fees to get their money back, if their holiday provider goes bust before the note can be converted to cash.
Shearings customers who were left saddled with credit notes when the package holiday provider went bust last month have now been sent an Atol claim form. But part of the form needs to be witnessed by a solicitor, notary public or other Commissioner for Oaths, making it time consuming and potentially costly to complete. And there's still no guarantee the claim will be successful, as the CAA has not confirmed if refund credit notes are financially protected.
Which? contacted 10 solicitors from around the UK and found that half couldn't help with completing the form as their offices are closed, while the fees quoted by those who are open ranged anywhere from £5 to £120.
Many package holiday providers are issuing credit notes for cancelled holidays, despite the Package Travel Regulations requiring them to issue a cash refund within 14 days when requested. Customers have been sent them, even when they have told the company they want their money back.
A refund credit note can either be used as a voucher towards another booking, or exchanged for cash when it expires. But as these notes often don't expire for several months, it's crucial that they also offer financial protection in the event the company issuing them goes bust.
The Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA), which has publicly backed these notes, insists they are protected, but the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which is responsible for the Atol scheme that pays out when package holiday companies fail, has repeatedly refused to confirm this .
The collapse of Shearings is the first test of whether or not credit notes will allow customers to claim their money back.
Unlike some types of Atol application, claims for an 'outstanding refund' require either a solicitor, notary public, other Commissioner for Oaths or Officer of a Court to officially witness you sign the form, as well as stamp it with their official seal (as the image below shows).
But finding someone who can act as a Commissioner of Oaths to provide this service is currently difficult. We contacted 10 firms of solicitors from around the country and were told by five that their offices are closed due to coronavirus. A sixth firm was uncontactable.
Four firms told us that their offices were open for this type of service, but the prices they quoted varied significantly. Two said it cost £5 per document, while one quoted £20 and another charged £40 but said it would donate the money to charity.
We also contacted a notary public that provides this service. But three different people at the same firm gave us three different quotes, ranging from £50 to £120.
If you're in need of this service, try and find a solicitor, notary public or other Commissioners for Oaths who will do it for £5. That is the official fee stated in the Commissioners for Oaths (Fees) Order 1993/2297, but not all firms are bound by the Order, so are free to charge whatever they want for a few minutes work.
None of the solicitors firms we contacted said they were able to sign and witness the Atol form virtually. One firm did say they would look into it, but that getting the form approved in this way would likely cost more.
Anyone who needs to fill in this part of the Atol form but has been deemed particularly vulnerable to coronavirus, will therefore likely have to wait weeks to complete their form, before then waiting to see if Atol approves the claim.
We asked the CAA to explain why this type of claim needs to be witnessed by a solicitor, when other Atol claims don't. It said that to prevent fraud and make sure it pays the right amount of money to the right people, it may ask consumers to sign a declaration form witnessed by a solicitor, when processing this type of claim.
Don't accept a refund credit note. Even if they are Atol protected, which is by no means assured, getting your money back if the company issuing the note goes bust is likely to be time consuming and potentially costly.
We're campaigning for all eligible consumers with cancelled holidays and flights to be offered a full cash refund, as they're entitled to by law.