Know your customer rights by Amanda Hamilton

If you sell directly to consumers, you are very likely to experience customers who want to return a purchase. Perhaps they don’t like the product you supplied, or it turns out to be faulty. 

From a purely legal standpoint, without a receipt you are not obliged to give them a refund, but of course you may feel that doing so is worth it for the goodwill. In fact, without a receipt, there’s not a lot a customer can do.  

But, if they do have a receipt, it’s a totally different story. Whether the gift was bought in-store or online, there are some pretty strong and clear consumer rights relating to returns: the 2015 Consumer Rights Act. This Act was updated to provide clearer shopping rights, especially when returning items bought online, including digital downloads.

As with previous legislation, under the Consumer Rights Act all products must be of satisfactory quality, fit for purpose and as described.  

The rules also include digital content in this definition. So, all products – whether physical or digital – must meet the following standards:  

• As described. The goods supplied must match any description given, or any models or samples shown at the time of purchase.

• Fit for purpose. The goods should be fit for the purpose they are supplied for, as well as any specific purpose you made known to the customer before they agreed to buy the goods. 

• Satisfactory quality. Goods shouldn’t be faulty or damaged when received. You should ask what a reasonable person would consider satisfactory for the goods in question. For example, bargain-bucket products won’t be held to as high standards as luxury goods. 

If what your customer has bought doesn’t satisfy any one of the three criteria outlined above, they have a claim under the Consumer Rights Act against the retailer (seller) as opposed to the manufacturer.

What your customer can claim depends on how much time has passed since they physically took ownership of the goods. 

30-day right to reject
Under the Consumer Rights Act, a consumer has an absolute legal right to reject goods that are of unsatisfactory quality, unfit for purpose or not as described, and get a full refund – as long as they do this quickly, within 30 days of taking ownership. One takes ownership of the goods when one pays for them in a store and takes them away, or when the goods are delivered to
a person who has paid online.

Outside of the 30 days 
If a customer is outside the 30-day right to reject, they have to give you, as a retailer, one opportunity to repair or replace any goods or digital content which are of unsatisfactory quality, unfit for purpose or not as described. 

If the attempt at a repair or replacement is unsuccessful, the customer can then claim a refund, or a price reduction if they still wish to keep the product.

Less than six months
If your customer discovers a fault within the first six months of having the product, it is presumed to have been there since the time they took ownership of it – unless you can prove otherwise.

If they would prefer to keep the goods in question, they can request an appropriate price reduction.

Six months or more
If a fault develops after the first six months, the burden is on the customer to prove that the product was faulty at the time they took ownership of it. In practice, this may require some form of expert report, opinion or evidence of similar problems across the product range. 

A customer has six years to take a claim to the small claims court for faulty goods in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

Digital content

The Consumer Rights Act defines digital content as ‘data which are produced and supplied in digital form.’

Just like goods, digital content must be:

• fit for a particular purpose
• as described by the seller
• of satisfactory quality

If digital content does not conform to these criteria, a customer has the right to a repair or replacement of the digital content they’ve bought. 

So, effectively, the 2015 statute is a very useful piece of legislation to protect consumer rights – not only relating to purchased items but also in respect of the supply of services as well. 

However, what if the item is not faulty, but they simply don’t like it? Can they ask for a refund or exchange?

Most stores, online or otherwise, will give customers a period of time to get a refund in such circumstances. Some offer such a high level of customer service that they will give a refund on returned goods after a ‘reasonable’ period of time, provided the returned item is as new and a receipt is produced. But beware, you do not have to legally do so outside of your specified deadline.

If you do end up in a stalemate with a customer, and feel you need additional help, then engaging a suitably qualified and licenced paralegal can be a much cheaper option than using a solicitor. Paralegals can do most of the same work as solicitors (with a few exceptions, known as reserved activities), and charge considerably less. Ensure your paralegal is licenced and registered with a membership body, such as NALP (National Association of Licenced Paralegals).

Amanda Hamilton is Chief Executive of the National Association of Licenced Paralegals (NALP), a non-profit membership body, and the only paralegal body that is recognised as an awarding organisation by Ofqual (the regulator of qualifications in England). Through its training arm, NALP Training (trading as National Paralegal College), accredited recognised professional paralegal qualifications are offered for a career as a paralegal professional. 

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