Gym chains to make contracts fairer

GymThree more gyms have agreed to make their contracts fairer and more transparent for customers following an investigation by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT).

LA Fitness, Dave Whelan Sports and Harlands Group will extend rights to allow members to cancel their contracts early if a change in circumstances makes attendance difficult or unaffordable and be more upfront and transparent about initial membership periods and cancellation rights.
%VIRTUAL-SkimlinksPromo%They will also stop describing contracts as being of a fixed duration if they automatically continue on a rolling basis after the initial period expires.

LA Fitness and Dave Whelan Sports have almost 500,000 members between them and Harlands Group manages more than 900,000 customer contracts.

The moves follow an agreement earlier this year by Bannatyne Fitness, David Lloyd Leisure and Fitness First Clubs to change their contract terms.

The OFT is also writing to 20 other health and fitness operators to highlight contract terms and commercial practices which could be unfair, and advising them to review these.

OFT executive director Cavendish Elithorn said: "As a result of our investigation, millions of gym members now have better contract terms, including improved cancellation rights that prevent them being unfairly locked in if their circumstances change. T his should be a warning to the rest of the industry that we will not hesitate to take action where we find evidence of consumers being treated unfairly.

"Anyone considering joining a gym or health club should carefully consider the contract terms before signing up. Consumers should shop around and ask questions. Alarm bells should ring if gyms are not being clear and upfront about their terms and conditions, including the length of the contract and cancellation rights. If consumers are told something that is not in the terms and conditions, they should ask for written confirmation.'

The OFT said it would continue to monitor compliance alongside Trading Standards.

The OFT launched its investigation after a High Court ruling against a gym management company found lengthy membership periods could be unfair when they locked people in without adequate cancellation rights if their circumstances changed.

10 consumer rights you should know
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Gym chains to make contracts fairer

The law states that any goods you buy from a UK retailer should be of satisfactory quality, as described, fit for purpose and last a reasonable amount of time.

This applies even if you buy items in a sale or with a discount voucher. You may have to insist on these rights being respected, though.

Useful phrases to use when you want to show you mean business include, "according to the Sale of Goods Act 1979" and, if it's a service, "according to the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982".

Some shops will allow you to exchange goods without a receipt, but they can refuse to should they wish.

If the goods are faulty, however, another proof of purchase such as a bank statement should work just as well.

If you attempt to return goods within four weeks of the purchase, your chances of getting a full refund are much higher as you can argue that you have not "accepted" them.

After this point, you can only really expect an exchange, repair or part-refund.

The updated Consumer Credit Act states that card companies are jointly and severally liable for credit card purchases of between £100 and £60,260 (whether or not you paid just a deposit or the whole amount on your card).

Anyone spending between these amounts on their credit card is therefore protected if the retailer or service provider goes bust, their online shopping never arrives or the items in question are faulty or not as described.

Start by writing to the agency asking it to either remove or change the entry that you think is wrong. It will investigate the matter and find out whether you have been the victim of ID theft or a bank's mistake.

Within 28 days from receipt of your letter the agency should tell you how the bank has responded. If the bank agrees to change the entry, they will authorise the agency to update their records. They should also send updates to any other credit reference agencies they use.

You can also contact your lender directly to query a mistake. If the lender agrees to the discrepancy, ask them to confirm this in writing on their letterhead and send a copy to the agency, asking them to update your file.

The FOS settles disputes between financial companies such as banks and consumers.

If a financial organisation rejects a complaint you make about its services, you can therefore escalate that complaint to the FOS - as long as you have given the company in question at least eight weeks to respond.

The FOS will then investigate the case, and could force the company to offer you compensation should it see fit.

Bailiffs are allowed to take some of your belongings to sell on to cover certain debts, including unpaid Council Tax and parking fines.

They can, for example, take so-called luxury items such as TVs or games consoles. However, they cannot take essentials such as fridges or clothes.

What's more, they can only generally enter your home to take your stuff if you leave a door or window open or invite them in.

You are therefore within your rights to refuse them access and to ask for related documents such as proof of their identity. If they try to force their way in, you can also call the police to stop them.

Private sector debt collectors do not have the same powers as bailiffs, whatever they tell you.

They cannot, for example, enter your home and take your possessions in lieu of payment.

In fact, they can only write, phone, or visit your home to talk to you about paying back the debt. As with bailiffs, you can also call the police if you feel physically threatened.

Thanks to the Distance Selling Regulations, you actually have more rights buying online or by phone than on the High Street.

You can, for example, send most goods back within a week, for a full refund (including outward delivery costs), even if there's no fault.

You will usually need to pay for the return delivery, though. The seller must then refund you within 30 days.

We enter into contracts all the time, whether it be to join a gym, switch energy supplier or take out a loan.

In most cases, once you've signed a contract, you are legally bound by it. In some situations, however, you have the right to cancel it within a certain timeframe.

Credit agreements, for example, can be cancelled within 14 days. And online retailers must tell you about your cancellation rights for any contract made up to stand up legally.

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