What to do if something breaks: your rights

Consumer rights explained: what can you do when purchases let you down?

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Do you remember when things were built to last? People used to have fridges that were older than their grown-up children, and sofas that had made it through more than one generation of the family.

So it can be incredibly frustrating when expensive household goods stop working months after you spend a small fortune on them. Fortunately you have some rights, and once you understand them, you should be able to get satisfaction - even when the products let you down.

As soon as something in the house starts to stutter, you need to take action: the longer you leave something after you bought it, the fewer rights you have. Dig out the paperwork you got when you bought it and check whether you are still within the warranty period. In most cases you will be covered for a year from the day you bought it the item. In some instances you will be given longer. John Lewis, for example, will usually cover you for two years.

Your rights within a year

If you are within the warranty, then call the shop or pop in and take along proof of when you bought the item. In theory you shouldn't have to get into any sort of argument: their contract with you stated that the item was guaranteed for a year, so they shouldn't try to wriggle out of it.

The shop may try to tell you that you have to go back to the manufacturer to complain, but this isn't the case: when you bought it you made a contract with the shop itself, so it's the seller's duty to make things right. Make it clear that you know this aspect of the law and they will realise they cannot fob you off this way.

If there was no year-long warranty or they prevaricate about replacing or repairing the item, then you have an extra piece of legislation you can use if the item fails within six months. Under The Sale and Supply of Goods to Consumer Regulations, you don't need to prove that there was anything wrong with the item when you bought it, if you have proof of purchase and the item is faulty, then it's up to the shop to prove it was your fault, and if they cannot, they'll have to repair or replace it.

Your rights further down the line

If it has been longer than six months (or longer than a year and the warranty has elapsed), then don't assume you are on your own, because you still have basic rights. The item must be of satisfactory quality, as described, fit for purpose, and last for a reasonable length of time. This is laid out in the Sale of Gods Act 1979 (which it is worth quoting when you call up to complain).

You need to decide where the item has let you down: was it fit for purpose in the first place, was the quality good enough, or has it failed far too early to be justifiable?

Once you have decided the grounds on which you have a right to recompense, call the shop, explain the problem, explain the rights you are relying on, and let them know in a reasonable tone what you expect them to do.

The company is usually happier to arrange a repair than a replacement, so before you start, consider whether you would be happy with a repair, or whether the item is so unreliable in so many ways that you want a replacement. You also need to consider whether you want compensation: this is usually harder to agree, so think carefully about whether this is justified before going down this route.

Why might they argue?

The tough thing about this particular law is that it is open to interpretation. The 'fit for purpose' element is reasonably straightforward, because if something demonstrably does not do the job, you are entitled to a refund or replacement.

There are some grey areas here though, because if, for example, you bought the wrong model of something by accident, it won't work for you, but the business doesn't have to give you a refund. However, if you asked the shop if this model was compatible with the item you owned and they said yes, then it's not fit for the purpose the person in the shop described, and therefore you are covered.

Meanwhile 'satisfactory quality' is a subjective notion. The law states that 'satisfactory' in this instance means something that a reasonable person would consider satisfactory when you take into account the price you paid and how old the item is. The definition of the word 'reasonable' is where you and the shop may disagree.

And again a 'reasonable length of time' is another one which is open to argument, because it comes down to weighing up the cost of the item and how long you had it for, before deciding whether you should have been able to expect the item to last longer.

If they argue

Not all shops will honour their obligations, and many will stand firm when you contact them about a problem with an item that fails on the measures of being satisfactory or lasting a reasonable length of time.

They may also tell you that after a year they have no responsibility. You can call their attention back to the Sale of Goods Act, but you may also find it helpful to call on the Limitations Act (called the Precriptions and Limitations Act in Scotland). This sets out that you have six years after you bought the goods in which to complain. It doesn't give you the right to an automatic refund if the item is less than six years old, but it means that the company is obligated to address your concerns.

If the first person you speak to isn't helpful, then ask to speak to a supervisor, so they know you are serious and you can be certain you are dealing with someone who is equipped to help you.

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The next step

If they won't help, you need to complain in writing to the head office. Send all letters recorded delivery and keep a copy so that you have proof of what you send and when. You need to lay out the statutory rights you are calling on, and what you expect them to do. It makes sense to enclose copies of your receipt and proof of the item's failings too - but don't send any originals in case you need them later.

If you get no response, or they refuse to help, write again. If you are persistent, they know they cannot fob you off, and are more likely to consider meeting their obligations in order to get rid of you.

Throughout all your dealings when you are complaining, you need to keep a diary of when you called, who you spoke to, and what they said. It'll be tricky, but you need to try to stay calm too - because nobody wants to help a customer who is so frustrated that they lose their temper.

If you hit a dead end

Even after all that you may end up with a shop that refuses to do its duty. In this case if the item cost less than £10,000 you can take them to the small claims court. The court will expect you to have tried every available alternative, so you'll need to send a final warning to the company to explain that unless they provide a satisfactory response by a specific deadline you will take legal action. This shouldn't be an empty threat.

Before you go to the courts, it's worth bearing in mind that the company can make expenses claims against you if they win - for experts and days spent at the hearing, so this route only makes sense if you are absolutely certain you have a genuine case. It's worth talking to someone independent, such as a friend or the Citizens Advice Bureau, to make sure that you're not letting your emotions cloud your judgment.

However, if you have a strong case, then don't see this as a huge hurdle, because it's actually easier and cheaper than you might think (if you win, it won't cost you anything). You don't need a solicitor, and you're not in a courtroom: you're usually just in a room with a really helpful legal professional who will take the time to understand your position. In most cases, as soon as they hear from the court, the store will pay up anyway.

You'll need to access the court form online and fill it in, then prepare your case carefully - getting together all the documents you want to rely on, putting them in chronological order, listing out what each one proves, and making a list of them so that you can find them when you are in court. This evidence will include proof of purchase, any guarantees, letters you sent to the company and their replies, as well as photos or video to prove the fault in the first place. If you get stuck at any stage, you can get help from Citizens Advice.

No-one will pretend that the process of complaining, taking the argument to head office and then going to court is straightforward. In the worse case it can be frustrating and time consuming. However, don't let this put you off. You have rights when you buy things, and you shouldn't be afraid to use them.

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