If There Are Consumer Problems

From Clicklaw Wikibooks
This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by People's Law School in March 2017.

Sometimes the TV you just bought doesn’t work. Or the house painter you hired is doing a lousy job. What can you do?

Understand your legal rights

If a party does not do what they said they would under a contract, they are in breach of contract.

The law offers three different solutions when a contract has been breached.

  1. The contract can be cancelled. The parties are restored to their original situation.
  2. The party in breach can be ordered to pay damages to compensate the other party for any loss suffered. The damages are designed to put the injured party in the same position as if the contract had been successfully performed.  
  3. The party in breach can be ordered to perform the contract. The party is basically told they have to do what they promised in the contract.

Take the example of the TV that doesn’t work.   

  1. The contract could be cancelled. This would see you return the TV and get your money back.
  2. You could be awarded damages to compensate you for any loss. This would see the seller have to pay for the TV to be repaired or replaced. As well, if the TV caused any further damage (let’s say it caused an electrical short that ruined your DVD player), the seller would also have to compensate you for this loss.   
  3. The seller could be ordered to perform the contract. This would see the seller have to provide you with a working TV.

Which solution applies in a given situation depends on what is wrong and what kind of agreement was made.

One factor is whether any breach relates to a condition in the contract. A condition is an essential term in the contract, a term that is so important that without it one or other of the parties would not enter into the contract. When a condition is broken, the contract can be cancelled.

When a non-essential term of the contract is broken, the injured party can recover damages but the contract cannot be cancelled.

If the seller misled you

A seller is not allowed to mislead you to convince you to buy something. If you relied on a representation by the seller that was misleading or deceiving, you may be able to cancel the contract if the representation related to a condition in the contract.

If the representation related to a non-essential term of the contract, you would be entitled to damages to compensate you for any loss you suffered.  

If the seller acted unfairly towards you

If the seller did something unfair or knowingly took advantage of you, any agreement you sign is not binding on you. You can cancel the contract.

If something was faulty

Under the law, a level of quality, performance and durability is implied into every contract. The other party is in breach of this legal warranty if something you bought:   

  • was broken or damaged (not of “merchantable” quality),  
  • was unusable for the purpose you bought it for,
  • broke down after a short period (was not “durable for a reasonable period of time”), or
  • didn’t match the description of the goods.

If any of these conditions were not met, you are entitled to cancel the contract. Act immediately if you want to pursue this option. If you wait, it gets more difficult to prove that a fault was the cause of any problem, and not just normal wear and tear.  

The legal warranty does not apply if you examined the goods before buying them and ought to have seen any defect.

If you change your mind

With some purchases and contracts, you can change your mind during a "cooling-off period" (see the section "Making a Purchase").

If you decide you do not want to go ahead with a purchase or contract during the cooling-off period, you need to give the other party written notice telling them this. Once they get the notice, you have no further legal obligations under the contract.

In providing the written notice, you can use any form of written communication. It’s always best to send the notice in a way that allows you to keep proof of the date you cancelled - such as by email, registered mail, or courier.

Step 1. Decide what outcome you are seeking

Once you understand your legal rights and options, decide what outcome you are seeking. Do you want to cancel the contract and get your money back? Do you want to continue with the contract but get things put right?

Step 2. Collect your information

Collect information related to the purchase or contract.

Collect copies of any documents, such as any contract, receipts, correspondence, advertising, or warranties.

Prepare notes of the problem. Include:

  • details of the problem, including when you first noticed it
  • anything the other party said that you relied on in making the purchase or contract
  • what outcome you are seeking

Step 3. Contact the other party

Start by finding the right person to talk to about the problem. When there is a complaints department, use it. When there isn't, talk to someone in authority, such as a manager or owner.

You could start with something like this:

"My name is __________. I would like to make a complaint about a product I bought from your company. Could you direct me to the person who handles complaints?"

They may say that you have to make your complaint in writing. If they do, ask for the name and address you are to send the written complaint to.

When you find the right person to talk to, clearly explain your problem. Be firm and businesslike, but polite. You can say something like this:

"I bought a _________________ on ____________ [date], at ____________ [location]. I am contacting you because the product: [choose one]
  • is not working right
  • cannot do what it is meant to do
  • was not delivered"

Let them know you understand what you’re entitled to. Tell them what you want them to do to resolve the problem. You can say something like this:

"I think it is only fair that you: [choose one]
  • provide me with a refund
  • replace the product
  • repair the product free of charge"

The person may agree to do what you suggest. In this case, ask when they will do this. Ask them for their name so you can refer to the conversation later. Follow-up with a written note confirming what was agreed to.

If the person does not agree to do what you suggest, ask who you can contact with a formal complaint. Get the address of that person.   

Make notes of your conversation. Date your notes.

Step 4. Send a complaint letter

Image via www.istockphoto.com

If discussing the situation with the other party doesn’t resolve the problem, the next step is to send a complaint letter to them.

The letter should cover these points:

  • a description of what was bought or agreed to (include the date)
  • anything the other party said that you relied on in making the purchase or contract
  • details of the problem, including when you first noticed it
  • what you have done to try to resolve the problem
  • what you want them to do to resolve the problem

You should give a time frame for them to address the problem. Usually 10 working days is sufficient. You can write something like this:

"I look forward to your reply and to resolving the problem, and will wait until ___________________ [date] before taking my next step. Please contact me as soon as possible at the above address or by telephone at ____________."

You can also say what you will do next if they do not address the problem. For example, you might say that your next step will be to file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau or Consumer Protection BC, or to seek legal advice.

Step 5. Contact a consumer protection agency

If you still do not get a satisfactory response from the other party, you can file a complaint with a consumer protection agency.

For certain types of problems and contracts, one option is Consumer Protection BC. They investigate situations where the other party may have done something unfair or knowingly took advantage of you. As well, they can help resolve problems involving direct sales contracts (such as door-to-door sales), continuing service contracts (such as memberships in fitness clubs or yoga studios), and distance sales contracts (such as online purchases).

Another option is the Better Business Bureau, which receives complaints about local businesses.

See the "Where to Get Help" section for contact details.

Step 6. Consider legal action

If you cannot solve the problem with the above steps, your next step may be to take legal action. You can consider suing the other party for breach of contract. If you decide to sue, note that there are time limitations on filing lawsuits.

For options for free or low cost legal help, see the "Where to Get Help" section.

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