Law guide: Complaints and disputes

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Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Complaints, disputes and coronavirus

In this section you'll find information and updates related to coronavirus that are relevant to the law on complaints and disputes.

The UK's response to coronavirus is changing regularly and often very quickly. While we'll continue to make every effort to keep this page up to date, there may be short periods where what you read here is not the latest information available. Where possible we've tried to provide links to official sources, so you can check the current situation.

Consumer rights

Note that the pandemic has not changed the law on your consumer rights. See our guides on Problems with goods, Problems with services and Consumer rights and information.

Force majeure

Sometimes contracts or terms and conditions will contain something called a 'force majeure' clause (though it won't necessarily be called this). This gives the sellers the right to say they're not liable if they fail to do something if it is the result of something that is outside of their control.

These types of clauses can be allowed, but only if they are deemed fair under the Consumer Rights Act.

The Competition & Markets Authority offers detailed guidance, under section 5, on which terms that limit the liability of the seller could be regarded as unfair.

For example, simply the use of the expression 'force majeure' would already be unfair if not fully explained as the meaning of that term is not general knowledge. It would be fairer to use a term such as 'events beyond our control'.

A clause limiting the seller's liability for a delay in delivery of goods or fulfilling a contract will have the best chance of being judged fair and enforceable if it:

  • Limits liability only for those events that really are out of their control and which are unavoidably a direct cause for the delay or non-fulfilment;
  • Requires them to take all reasonable steps to avoid any delay or non-fulfilment even when faced with an uncontrollable event; and
  • Requires them to inform you as soon as possible of a delay or non-fulfilment that's expected due to an event outside their control and – if the delay is at risk of being substantial – allows you to cancel the contract with no financial penalty.

Sellers cancelling contracts

Some traders may cancel contracts with consumers for performing services (e.g. events) due to the pandemic. In this situation, less scrupulous traders might try to keep you to particularly onerous terms in the contract.

For example, in your contract with them you might have agreed to pay a non-refundable deposit; to make advance payments for services; or even to be liable to make full payment for the services if you cancel or if they have to cancel for reasons 'outside of their control' (see above under 'Force majeure' for more on this).

The fact that a term appears in a contract that you've signed doesn't mean that it would be enforceable in a court of law. A term in a consumer contract would only be enforceable if it doesn't breach your consumer rights and is fair under the Consumer Rights Act.

If a trader cancels a service, for whatever reason, you should get legal advice if they:

  • don't provide you with a similar suitable replacement service (or only do so after a substantial delay);
  • don't want to refund you what you have paid; or
  • try to get you to pay for the services they have not provided.

It's likely that you are entitled under such circumstances to get all the money back that you have paid.

Even if you are the one cancelling, the trader can't enforce any terms of your contract that aren't fair and can't necessarily keep you liable for payment of services you will not receive.

Do not accept that you need to be financially any worse off because of a cancellation of a service as a result of coronavirus without first getting legal advice.

Travel disruption

See our Holidays & Travel section for full details of problems. Below is a summary of some of the key points.

Airlines and flights

If your flight was cancelled

If your flight was cancelled as a result of the pandemic, you may be entitled to claim either a refund of the cost of the cancelled flight or to be offered a re-routed flight to the same destination. This entitlement will be under either the European Community Regulation EC 261/2004 (EU rules) or the European Community Regulation EC 261/2004 as amended by the Air Passenger Rights and Air Travel Organisers' Licencing (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 (UK rules).

The EU rules will be applicable to your flight if you:

  • departed from the EU (on any airline); or,
  • arrived in the EU with an EU airline.

The UK rules will apply to your flight if you:

  • departed from the UK (on any airline);
  • arrived in the UK with either an EU or UK airline; or
  • arrived in the EU with a UK airline.

Note that airports located in Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland are regarded as EU airports for these purposes. To check if an airport is an EU airport, see the list.

See Overview of EU and UK rules for more on this.

Many airlines offered vouchers or refund credit notes as an alternative to a refund – you didn't have to accept these, but if you did, see the information on Refund credit notes below. Officially, airlines should've refunded you within 7 days but due to the high demand they struggled to meet that deadline.

If you'd already started your journey before the flight was cancelled, you would also have been able to claim a refund of certain other expenses you might have incurred, such as for refreshments, overnight accommodation and travelling to and from the airport.

If you were not offered another flight to the same destination after your flight was cancelled, and you had to book another flight yourself, you would be entitled to claim a refund of the cost of that alternative flight from the airline.

However, other than a refund or rerouting, you would not be able to claim compensation under the UK or EU rules, because the outbreak of a pandemic would be regarded as 'extraordinary circumstances'.

You must be sure to check your airline's terms and conditions as they may have a procedure that you have to follow to make a claim. If they do not set out a procedure for claiming, you can write to them and set out your claim. Just be sure to keep a copy of all dealings you have with the airline, should you need it later.

If the airline refuses to refund you and pay your expenses as claimed, you could use the airline's alternative dispute resolution (ADR) scheme to resolve the dispute. If your airline is not a member of an ADR scheme and you're claiming under the UK or EU rules, you could approach the Civil Aviation Authority's Passenger Advice and Complaints Team (PACT) for help by submitting your claim to them online.

If you are not happy with the outcome you could take the airline to court if they refuse to refund you the cost of the cancelled flights and expenses. For more information on how to proceed with your claim through the court see Making a claim.

If you can't travel

Note that you do not have a right to a refund if you decide against using a future booked flight that has not yet been cancelled. Check with the airline to see what your options are.

If government lockdown rules meant you couldn't fly on a booked flight, but the airline still operated that flight, your right to a refund under the EU or UK rules isn't certain – neither explicitly says what should happen in this situation. Check with the airline to see whether or not the flight actually happened, then ask the airline what they can offer you.

Package holidays

If you booked a package holiday that was cancelled due to the pandemic, you are entitled, under the Package Travel and Linked Travel Arrangements Regulations 2018 (Package Regs), to get your money back within 14 days from the travel operator who received your payment for the holiday.

Many travel operators tried to delay making full refunds within 14 days by offering half refunds, holiday vouchers and refund credit notes. You did not have to accept these, but if you did, see the information on Refund credit notes below.

There is a risk that many travel operators and airlines might go bust as a result of the impact of the pandemic, but the law in the UK requires travel businesses to financially protect their package holidays. The Air Travel Organiser's Licence (ATOL) scheme protects most air travel package holidays sold by UK travel businesses and some directly booked flights where you don't receive your tickets immediately, while non-flight package holidays will most likely have financial protection through the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA).

If your air package holiday or flight is covered under ATOL or your non-flight package holiday is protected under ABTA, you should be protected from losing money or becoming stranded abroad if the travel business you booked with collapses. See the Civil Aviation Authority and ABTA websites for more information.

Refund credit notes

When the first national lockdown happened in March 2020 and all flights were cancelled, airlines and travel companies could not afford to refund large numbers of customers all at once, as was required by law. They instead made use of refund credit notes. This is a special type of voucher that customers could use to book another flight when the travel ban was lifted or exchange for cash at a later date.

To ease customers' concerns that airlines and travel companies could go bust before they could use the refund credit notes, the Civil Aviation Authority (CCA) decided to financially back refund credit notes under the ATOL-protection scheme.

However, this protection will end on 30 September 2022, so if you have a refund credit note you must use it or cash it in before then. After that date you will have no protection against the airline or travel company going bust. Also, since 19 December 2021, airlines and travel companies have been unable to issue further refund credit notes that are protected by the ATOL scheme.

Holiday and flight FAQs

What's the difference between a voucher and a refund credit note?

Refund credit notes are a particular kind of voucher that financially protect you if the operator goes bust before you can use it, provided the package holiday was protected by ATOL or ABTA in the first place.

Refund credit notes should contain an expiry date. Up to this date, your money is protected and you can use it to re-book or have your money refunded. It should be equal in value to what you paid and must include the reference and details of the original booking. However, keep in mind that the financial protection of refund credit notes ends on 30 September 2022. See above for more information on refund credit notes.

Standard vouchers are not financially protected. Be careful not to accept a holiday voucher in full and final settlement of your claim for a refund, as then you will be unable to claim a refund later or make use of chargeback or a Section 75 claim to get your refund (see below).

How do I get my money back if the airline or package holiday firm won't refund me?

There are several possibilities:

1. Chargeback: If your flight or package holiday was cancelled and you paid the company directly with an American Express, MasterCard or Visa card, you could make use of these card companies' chargeback facility.

Whatever the amount you paid, it's worth a try to get your money back in this way, as it's intended to help you recover your money if you pay for something that you then don't get. In a chargeback, your card company will ask for the money back from the bank of the airline or package holiday operator.

However, you must claim within 120 days of buying your ticket or package holiday. And if you do get your money, it's possible that the airline or travel company could take it back again if they successfully dispute your claim (usually within 45 days).

To make a claim for chargeback, visit your card company's website.

2. Section 75 claim: If your flight or package holiday was cancelled and you paid the company directly by credit card, you could also make use of a Section 75 claim. This refers to Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974, which in these circumstances makes the credit card company liable along with the airline for breach of contract. You'd be claiming the money back directly from the credit card company.

Section 75 applies if the total cost of your purchase was more than £100 but not more than £30,000, irrespective of whether you only paid part of it with your credit card or only paid a deposit. You can claim a refund of all you paid to the supplier from the credit card company. You must claim within 6 years of the date of your purchase.

3. ATOL and ABTA claims: If your flight was booked as part of a package holiday you might be ATOL protected. If you are, you would normally have been given an ATOL certificate, in which case you can make a claim to get your money back if the operator goes bust.

The same would apply if your non-flight package holiday is protected under ABTA and the operator goes bust. In this case visit ABTA to make a claim.

Passenger COVID-19 charter

The UK government has published a Passenger COVID-19 charter, giving information on your rights, responsibilities and reasonable expectations for international travel during the pandemic.

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