The outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) is an unprecedented and rapidly evolving challenge that has impacted upon every aspect of life. The restrictions on non-essential travel and the mandatory closure of most business premises has disrupted many weddings due to take place this year.
As anyone who has organised a wedding will know, the number of different elements mean that each ceremony will rely upon several different suppliers. As a result of these complications, we are now offering this advice and guidance to anyone wondering where they stand.
We have seen many examples of couples, their chosen venue and the other businesses involved all being flexible and working constructively to try to avoid the need to cancel completely. This is by either agreeing a revised booking date or by securing some other arrangement (i.e. deposit / monies held pending the lifting of restrictions and the reopening of bookings). These voluntary arrangements show that the majority of couples are still keen to have their special day to look forward to once the current restrictions are lifted. In return it has helped those businesses that may otherwise struggle due to the financial impact of the current situation.
There are still some couples who are unable to postpone to an alternative date for whatever reason and in those cases, it will be important to look at the terms and conditions in each of the contracts with the various suppliers. However, many smaller businesses (like florists, car hire, photographers, marquee providers and entertainers) may not have extensive written terms and conditions that cover such scenarios. In these extraordinary times, legislation that was introduced during the Second World War may help in situations where a satisfactory solution cannot be reached.
The Government’s restrictions in response to COVID-19 may bring into effect the rights and obligations contained within the Law Reform (Frustrated Contracts) Act 1943. Although this old legislation contains a statutory entitlement to a refund for any contract that has become impossible to perform or been otherwise frustrated (e.g. as a result of the current COVID-19 restrictions where the government has ordered the closure of certain businesses and the general public are advised to stay at home and only travel if essential).
This entitlement will only apply while the restrictions are in place. Therefore weddings booked beyond the period of restrictions may not become ‘frustrated’ until the actual date has passed. You will not be able to insist on a refund in advance.
Ultimately claims under the 1943 Act would have to be enforced through the County Court but hopefully most cases will be resolved between couples and the various service providers without needing to get to that stage.
So, if it is not possible to rearrange the date of the wedding below are some practical considerations to assist in resolving any cancellation issues.
When was your initial wedding date?
Is the wedding still due to take place or has it been cancelled due to Government restrictions? If the wedding has not been cancelled yet and is scheduled to take place at a future date when it is unknown whether the lockdown will be lifted or not, wait to hear from the business.
If a further payment is due, ask the trader what will happen if the wedding is not able to take place. Tell them you will make the payment on the proviso the trader agrees in writing to refund all monies in full if the wedding is unable to take place.
If the wedding has been cancelled, can you and the business agree to reschedule or refund, or some other agreement?
If you are unable to come to an agreement, the contract may be frustrated. Most wedding contracts during the lockdown period may be frustrated, as they cannot legally or safely take place, as will most related services such as caterers, wedding photographers etc. However, some contracts can take place, such as the supply of certain non-perishable goods ordered for the wedding, it’s just that they are no longer needed for that day.
If a contract is not frustrated, for goods ordered at a distance try using your rights under distance selling. However, bear in mind there are exemptions to these regulations.
If the contract is frustrated, is there a clause explaining what happens in the event of frustration? This clause often uses the words “force majeure” and may cover forced cancellations (i.e. major unforeseen events outside of either party’s control). Do the terms and conditions state that all monies will be refunded in situations where cancellation occurs due to ‘force majeure’? If so, contact the business to request a refund and follow their processes in the first instance.
If the clause is not in your favour, was it communicated to you? Any clause that is not communicated to you is not part of the contract. However if you have simply failed to read them you may be bound by those terms, though any clause must be clearly brought to your attention and be fair and legal.
All clauses of consumer contracts should be balanced in terms of the rights and responsibilities of the two parties. If it is wholly in the favour of the trader, a court may choose to ignore it. However, that will be up to the judge in the case in question at their discretion.
If there is no clause, the legislation says that the trader should return your money minus any costs they have already incurred. Consumers should be aware that a business may deduct any reasonable, unavoidable costs they have incurred in performing their part of the contract, up until the date of the frustrated event. If you feel the trader has taken an unfair amount, ask them to justify it. If they can’t, you may be able to claim for more than they have offered.
If you feel the business is offering an inconvenient future date or requiring unfair cancellation fees or rebooking charges, try to work with the venue as it’s a really difficult time for businesses as well as consumers.
Finally, as a last resort, where the service provider continues to refuse a refund and you have no other means of getting your money back, you may consider issuing a claim via the County Court, under the Law Reform (Frustrated Contracts) Act 1943.
Do you have insurance?
If you have wedding insurance check the small print carefully to see if your booking is covered. If it is, contact your insurer in writing to register a claim.
If you believe that your insurance company has unfairly refused your claim, consider contacting the Financial Ombudsman Service. However, check if your insurance policy includes a term such as cancellation due to Government advice or public health issue.
Is a venue insisting you claim on your insurance rather than refunding any deposit payment? The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) takes a dim view of any business that seeks to avoid its customers’ legal rights. The CMA wrote to many wedding venues in 2016 warning against this sort of practice, which they felt may be an unfair contract term.
How did you pay?
You may be able to make a claim under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974 if all of the following apply:
- At least part of the goods or services were purchased on your credit card by you, the main cardholder (additional cardholders or third parties won’t be covered)
- The value of the good or services is between £100 and £30,000
- The purchase or booking was made less than six years ago.
If you paid by debit card you may be able to request a charge back from your bank.
The same rights apply to registration fees. It is important to remember that the registration service will have completed a lot of work in advance of the actual ceremony. As a result, a deposit payment (if charged) may be retained to cover those costs.
If the new ceremony date falls outside the current Marriage Authority period you may need to give notice again and have to pay again. Please speak to your Registration Service about obtaining a new Marriage Authority. Giving notice is a statutory requirement and forms part of the legal preliminaries to each marriage or civil partnership ceremony. The original fee covers the cost of taking the original notice and producing the original Marriage Authority, so you are likely to have to pay for the new Notice and Authority.
You are likely to need to establish your seven days of “Residency” again if the period of notice needs to be repeated. But don’t forget that you may need to cancel or rearrange any original accommodation or travel bookings.
The Competitions and Market Authority has produced the following guidance. It should be noted all unfair terms are open to challenge.
- Unfair contract terms guidance.
- GOV.UK – Wedding and event venue providers: letter from the CMA on contract terms.
If you feel a business is behaving unfairly during COVID-19, report it to the CMA. Examples of unfair practices may include unfair cancellation fees, unreasonable rebooking fees and complex refund procedures.