New consumer rights come into effect
A LONGER refund period, new rights regarding digital downloads, and increased protection when buying a service, have come into effect in the UK.
The Consumer Rights Act represents the biggest shake up of British consumer protection law in decades, bringing together and improving on existing legislation.
The new rules also take special account of the digital world we live in for the first time, removing some of the ambiguity over our rights when it comes to digital goods and services.
But it only applies to goods and services bought from today and beyond. Anything bought or ordered yesterday will still be covered by the three pieces of legislation being replaced.
The rules the Consumer Rights Act will replace are found in the Sale of Goods Act 1979, the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982, and the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations.
The main points of the Sale Of Goods Act remain: items we purchase must be of satisfactory quality based on factors such as price, and fit for the intended purpose.
The old regulations also stated that they must be "as described", but this requirement has been replaced with one stating that they "must meet the expectations of the consumer".
At a basic level, this means the same thing - for example, when we buy something based on a description, picture or sample of a product, then the product needs to be in line with those expectations.
But it can also refer to factors like quality and longevity. We'd expect food with a use-by date to last until at least that point; we'd expect a brand name item to be made to better standards than a bargain version.
Right to return
When not dealing with perishable items like food, the key change to the law is that there's now a definite time period in which we have a right to ask for a refund on faulty goods.
Anyone who buys something that they then find to be faulty now has a period of 30 days in which they're entitled to ask for a full refund.
Previously the time frame was somewhat woolly, described only as a "reasonable time". Most traders would give us four weeks, some famously offer more - but others were within their rights to refuse to refund us before that point.
Note that having the right to return faulty goods within 30 days is not the same as having the right to return something just because we've changed our minds - on this point, shops are still entitled to refuse returned goods.
Repair, replace, repair, replace...
What happens after those 30 days are up is also important. Previously, we were entitled to ask for a repair, replacement, or a refund. Now, however, we must agree to at least one repair or replacement.
So if a pair of shoes starts to fall apart after six weeks, we might be forgiven for wanting a full refund straight away - but the retailer can insist that we let them replace them, or repair them for us.
If, however, it takes too long to carry out the repair, or a replacement isn't possible, or the shoes start to fall apart again within six months, we're entitled to claim that full refund. After six months, the retailer is allowed to offer us a partial refund instead.
But what they can't do is insist on continuing to repair or replace the item, as they previously could.
The only times the 30 day return period doesn't apply are when we're dealing with certain perishable items, or those of a digital nature.
It makes sense not to insist on being able to return a litre of milk for a refund for up to 30 days, as unless it's long life it'll go off before that point.
Digital media is slightly different, however.
The Consumer Rights Act describes digital content as "data... produced and supplied in digital form" - which includes everything from computer games to downloaded music, books and films, to mobile apps.
This is important, so we'll say it again: the 30 day refund period doesn't apply to this kind of content. Instead, we must accept an attempt to repair or replace the item.
If that doesn't fix the issue, we're entitled to ask for a refund of up to the full cost of the content.
But if any other device or content we own is damaged as a result of our new purchase, we're entitled to compensation to cover that cost - so if downloading a game infects our machine with a virus, the provider could be liable for the cost of putting things right.
What have you done to my hair?
This also applies to the services we buy - like getting our cars fixed, or having a haircut.
If that service isn't provided "with reasonable care and skill", within a reasonable time, or as agreed - whether in writing or verbally - the trader must put things right, either at no cost or at a reduced cost.
If putting it right isn't possible - our hairdresser scalps us, for example, when all we agreed to was a couple of inches off the ends - we're entitled to ask for a reduction in price, up to the full cost of the service.
Admittedly, most traders will tend to offer such recompense - but as of today it's our legal right.