As a follow-up to some training delivered to a registered business, we have been asked to provide some additional insight into the impact that the passage of time can have on a consumer’s claim about goods. Whilst the right to reject was maintained within the Consumer Rights Act 2015 as an important right to return goods that do not conform to contract when they are delivered (within the first 30 days), some issues are not apparent immediately, can manifest with use or be ‘latent’, that is be hidden and therefore not immediately discernible.
For this reason, time limits are set out so that the parties have some idea of what to expect.
The Limitation Act 1980
This piece of legislation sets out that a consumer has six years to take their case to court which effectively means that their rights in the Consumer Rights Act 2015 could be enforced for this time period. However, whilst the right to reject within the first 30 days means that the consumer would be entitled to a full refund, this is not the case for the entirety of those six years. After the first 30 days have lapsed, a consumer is entitled to a repair or a replacement and only if that fails, is impossible or cannot be carried out in a timely manner, will the consumer be entitled to a refund or a price reduction (i.e. a deduction to keep the goods as they are). A refund can be apportioned to account for use, but not within the first six months. This means that a consumer who has purchased goods that develop a fault after three years, would be entitled to a 50% refund, if we use this Act as a guideline.
Goods may come with a guarantee for a specified time period which could be either shorter or, indeed, longer than that prescribed by the Limitation Act 1980. A guarantee usually provides some additional reassurance, over and above the consumer’s statutory rights (e.g., those set out in the Consumer Rights Act 2015), and for this reason entitlement under a guarantee is assessed on its specific wording. That said, there are still a couple of things to note about the timeframes specified in these guarantee documents. A guarantee for less than the Limitation Act 1980, is not the end of the road in terms of enforcing rights about goods and the consumer still has the protection that the statute offers, notwithstanding a guarantee. A manufacturer’s guarantee is also additional protection and should not take away any of the rights that the consumer has within the consumer protection legislation. A longer guarantee, for example a 10-year guarantee, only gives the protection it specifies when the consumer is no longer able to enforce their rights under the legislation. Care should be taken when wording guarantees to ensure that they only offer the intended protection. For example, if you do not want the guarantee to re-start when replacing products under it, that should be clearly stated. Similarly, if you are issuing a new guarantee as a gesture of goodwill when replacing or repairing products, this should also be clear to the consumer and if it is a one-off say so, to prevent a guarantee in perpetuity scenario.
What is a consumer’s entitlement and what is reasonable in the circumstances?
This will depend on the circumstances of each case. The passage of time can have an impact on a consumer’s entitlement. Usual wear and tear do not generally give rise to a claim and the only way use can be recognised by a trader is to make a deduction from any refund, hence a partial refund can be agreed after six months of use. Further, once the right to reject has lapsed, whilst a consumer is initially entitled to a repair or replacement, it may be that replacement parts are no longer available (for example there is no ‘hospital stock’ remaining if the range has been discontinued, or the trader no longer has a relationship with that supplier), or that after a longer period of use, the trader does not think it is proportionate to offer a replacement. For this reason, the trader can elect to offer a partial refund or a price reduction to keep the goods (assuming they are still working) as an alternative to replacing items or carrying out a repair. This is still considered reasonable.
We can see, therefore, that the passage of time and usage of the goods will impact what the consumer may be entitled to when issues manifest later. Traders need to understand their obligations to consumers and the role that the supply chain can play in determining the availability of remedies and the impact of guarantees. Clear information and good communications are key in any interaction to explain this and manage expectations. In addition, pre-contract information explaining to people how to care for their goods is essential in ensuring expected longevity and reducing complaints about them.