Wedding or Alarm Bells?Published on: 06 November 2020
Confirmed cases of coronavirus are on the rise and greater restrictions are, once again, being imposed by the UK Government and the devolved administrations.
At the time of writing, Wales is due to come out of its national lockdown and England has entered its own.
Both nations have imposed various rules concerning gatherings at weddings and these have changed over time as the pandemic progresses.
Resultantly, couples who had planned to tie the knot in 2020 have been faced with a seemingly never ending amount of obstacles to overcome to get to their big day.
Some of those, who have had their plans changed by the pandemic, have encountered issues with changing dates or reclaiming deposits from suppliers and venues. In the majority of cases, this isn’t a small amount of money, with the average cost of a UK wedding being around £21,000.
On 7 September 2020, the Competition and Markets Authority (“CMA”) in an open letter to the weddings sector highlighted concerns surrounding unfair practices by a minority of businesses, mainly relating to the cancellation of contracts and services due to the coronavirus lockdown restrictions.
Specifically, these issues were:
wedding businesses refusing to offer or give appropriate refunds where weddings are, or were, prevented from taking place by lockdown laws;
uncertainty about weddings that are affected by legal restrictions and government guidance as lockdown laws are eased; and
businesses seeking to rely on unfair contract terms.
The starting point is, the consumer should be offered a full refund where lockdown laws prevent or have prevented a wedding from going ahead as agreed. This refund being due even where the consumer has paid what the business claims to be “non-refundable” deposits.
There are circumstances where the business may be able to retain a proportion of the sums paid. This can include sums to cover services or products, which have already been provided, and a contribution to costs incurred by the business, which have a sufficiently direct connection with the contract.
Although, it is worth noting that there is no automatic legal right for a business to deduct its costs from a refund, but it may be able to where this could be considered as just taking all the circumstances into account.
Laws and Guidance
To make the issue that little bit more complicated, there is the added confusion surrounding lockdown laws and lockdown guidance.
Lockdown guidance is government issued directions concerning what people should or should not do and compliance with the guidance is not legally binding. Whereas, lockdown laws are legal restrictions on certain activities and include such laws as the rule of six and the requirement to self-isolate.
Consumers who choose to follow the government guidance should be treated fairly by the business and should not be misled as to the effects of that guidance.
However, where either party do not want to proceed due to government guidance, the situation is more complex. It will not always be clear what impact the government guidance will have on the contract.
It will be important to review any applicable pre-existing terms and conditions, specifically, clauses relating to cancellation, refunds, suspension of obligations or force majeure. A force majeure clause, if there is such a clause in the contract, will operate to relieve the parties’ obligations if a trigger event occurs, which is beyond the control of either party. In the absence of a force majeure clause, the parties would likely need to rely on the doctrine of frustration.
Where the contract has become frustrated, the parties are relieved from their obligations. There is potential for this to occur where lockdown guidance has made what was agreed impossible to perform. If the contract is frustrated, this will effectively end the contract. However, whether a contract is to be frustrated is highly dependent on the circumstances.
What Should You Do?
First of all, it is important to speak with the business itself, it may be possible to find a solution which benefits both parties. Whether this is a refund, a rearrangement or some other course of action.
If you cannot reach an amicable resolution, or you believe the other party is acting unfairly, you should consider why your dispute has come about; is it due to lockdown laws or guidance? If it is due to lockdown laws, your options will be greater and the situation will be clearer.
You should keep a record of what was agreed between you and the other party, and any documentation that you may have concerning the transaction.
If you have paid via credit card, your provider may be able to assist in obtaining a refund. This can be the case even where some of the deposit was paid via other means.
What Can Lanyon Bowdler Do to Help?
Our Dispute Resolution team has decades of combined experience in helping clients deal with all manner of disputes.
We will act quickly and professionally to settle the matter in your favour, and where possible, without the need for costly court proceedings.
Contact a member of our team today to see how we can help you.