Wedding venues could be breaking the law by exploiting unfair terms and conditions to avoid refunding couples for cancellations due to coronavirus, new research has revealed.
Many frustrated couples are struggling to obtain refunds – often tens of thousands of pounds – from their wedding venue after the event had to be cancelled or postponed due to the ongoing pandemic, data from Which? showed.
Of the 25 couples the consumer group spoke to, 20 said their wedding venue refused to offer a refund or made the process for obtaining one difficult.
A similar number said they had not been offered like-for-like dates or offered a refund if the price for the postponed date was cheaper.
Refunds: Wedding venues could be breaking the law by exploiting unfair terms and conditions
A further 17 couples said their venue has charged a fee to rebook or cancel their wedding and 15 couples said their venue has introduced new terms and conditions.
Which? has said it is reporting 12 wedding venues and organisers to the Competition and Markets Authority.
It analysed the contracts of eight venues that had potentially unfair terms and conditions and heard from a further four couples whose venues were potentially breaching the regulator’s guidance on refunds and cancellations, which was issued last month after the CMA announced it was investigating this sector.
The CMA also advised that firms, in most cases, should refund customers if they cancel or cannot receive a service due to government public health measures, including any non-refundable deposits or advance payments.
It expects businesses to waive any admin fees for processing refunds too.
The most complaints Which? received were about the Bijou Weddings group, a family-run wedding venue chain.
Some of the couples that had booked with Bijou said the venue told them just before the Government announced a ban on weddings that not only had their weddings been cancelled but that they were also liable to pay a cancellation fee of 80 per cent of the total cost of their weddings.
Virus: The CMA told firms to refund customers if they cancel or cannot receive a service
In May, a number of Bijou customers reported new contract terms had appeared on the website, stating that couples could postpone if their original date was not possible due to the coronavirus pandemic, but with no reference to a refund.
This would be in breach of the CMA’s guidance that states rebooking should not be offered instead of refunds and by law, new terms and conditions must be fair and can be unenforceable if they give too much power to the business providing the service.
Bijou said the new contract uploaded to the site was a blank template and appeared due to an IT error.
Which? analysed the new and pre-existing terms and conditions from a number of wedding venues, including Bijou, and found some that could be seen as unfair and unenforceable as they significantly reduce customers’ rights.
Bijou customers also said the venue suggested they claim with their insurer to avoid refunding customers for cancelled weddings.
Most wedding insurers stopped selling new policies in mid-March following a surge in demand
Claudia had booked her wedding at Bijou’s Botleys Mansion venue. When the venue cancelled and asked for an 80 per cent cancellation fee, it suggested she claimed the money back from her insurer and used the money to rebook.
Most insurers have refused to pay out for cancellations, so Claudia risked being left out of pocket and with no idea if or when she would be able to get her money back.
The majority of wedding insurers also stopped selling new policies by mid-March following a surge in demand.
However, those with existing policies have found themselves caught between venues that refuse to pay out and insurers with unclear policies or ‘exclusion clauses’ which mean they do not have to pay out either.
A spokesperson for Bijou Group said: ‘We have been doing everything we can to navigate these very challenging times with as little disruption as possible to our couples and their big days, which we have been working on planning with them for up to two years, incurring significant costs along the way.
‘The huge majority are very appreciative and understanding but there is unfortunately a very small minority who are not entirely satisfied and have taken to press, social media, review sites, solicitors and so on in an attempt to get what they want.
‘We are considering every case, at length, individually to understand what we can do to help but must also be consistent and fair.’
What to do if you’re refused a refund
There are steps couples can take if they find that they have been refused a refund by their wedding venue.
Helen Dewdney, consumer expert and also known as The Complaining Cow, reveals what you can do to try and get your money back:
1. Write. Always write to the venue so that you have an evidence trail. Try writing to the chief executive. Whilst you are unlikely to get a response from the chief executive, it will help to escalate the matter.
2. In the current circumstances it would help to support businesses if you accepted a new date for the event, at no extra cost, if you can.
3. If you are not able to do this, state that you require a full refund under the Consumer Rights Act 2015, as the company is in breach of contract.
4. Include in your email the date by which you expect to hear back from them and what you will do if you do not receive a satisfactory response.
5. Say that if you are not fully satisfied with their response, you will not hesitate in taking the matter further.
This will include, but not be limited to, reporting them to the CMA, sharing your experience on social media and seeking redress through the Small Claims Court.
Adam French, Which? consumer rights expert, said: ‘We believe there may be a serious, industry-wide issue with wedding venues ducking their legal responsibilities on refunds and cancellations by using potentially unfair terms and conditions
‘While many wedding venues may have been financially impacted by the coronavirus crisis, couples who are likely to be devastated at having to cancel their big day should not be forced to bear the cost.
‘The CMA is currently investigating this sector and must be ready to take firm action against venues found to be breaching consumer law so customers have some prospect of getting their money back.’
This is Money previously spoke to couples who found that their wedding insurance was not covering them for moving the date of their big day, despite being promised otherwise.
We have since heard from a number of other customers who are struggling to reorganise their weddings without paying pricey fees.
One reader, Abbie, said: ‘Our venue has told us we are allowed to postpone to a later date subject to a fee of £500 if it’s six months after the original date, £750 beyond 12 months and £1,200 fee within 18 months.
‘We would also have to pay the same amount for a Friday wedding in April as we would have paid for a our Saturday wedding in July which is around a £3,000 difference.’
Another issue many found is that the venue would not refund them any money from moving from a ‘peak date’ – usually a weekend in summer – to a ‘non-peak date’, which is often a weekday in the winter months.
One reader, Rhys, said: ‘Our wedding venue is postponing our June 27 wedding until May 21. This has moved from a Saturday to Friday as a result.
‘The difference in price at the time of booking for those two days was £1,800. However, they aren’t offering me any refund.’
Some readers are saying that their venue is refusing to cancel the date altogether.
Katie said: ‘We have to travel five hours to get to our wedding venue so I asked theme to postpone our wedding as travel is banned.
‘Also all hairdressers are closed and I wont be able to get my hair and make up done. They have refused a postponement, saying our wedding is going ahead as far as they are concerned.’
Couples are advised to contact their venue first to try and resolve any issues before taking it further and either claiming on their insurance, if possible, and reporting them to the CMA or even taking the problem to the Small Claims Court.
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