Three people have broken beach wagons.
The first was pleased to receive theirs as a Christmas gift, just in time to make one treasured family trip to the beach before a wheel came off.
The second purchased theirs online from an overseas vendor.
The third finds the metal handle has rusted and snapped off, rendering it unsafe, but their receipt shows the warranty expired two months back.
Often in these kinds of scenarios, consumers feel instinctively they’re owed something – but what? And how do they claim it?
The outcomes can vary greatly and often boil down to one thing – how well you know your rights.
BAL Lawyers director Katie Innes said all Australian consumers were automatically entitled to a set of fundamental rights, called “consumer guarantees”, when they purchased products or services.
“First, if you’ve purchased goods, you’re entitled to outright ownership of those goods. A supplier cannot legally sell you goods encumbered, say, by hidden debts such as interest still owing,” she said.
“Second, you can expect goods to be of an ‘acceptable quality’ for the kind of goods supplied.
“The product should be as durable as reasonably expected of that product, look like the goods advertised to you and be free from malfunction or defects.
“The goods should also be fit for purpose. If you have told the supplier you need something to dig a hole and they sell you a hammer and say ‘this will do the job’, and then that hammer can’t dig a hole, then that’s not fit for the purpose you disclosed to them.”
Service providers are required to carry out their work with ”due care and skill”. And if there’s no specified time frame, goods and services must be provided in a “reasonable amount of time”.
These guarantees apply to all goods and services sold in Australia, regardless of whether they were received as a gift or purchased online from a vendor based overseas.
But straightforward as it may appear, Ms Innes said there were several common misconceptions around Australian consumer law.
“One is that you can only go to the supplier if something is wrong. In certain circumstances, you can also go to the manufacturer,” she said.
“Another is understanding when you’re entitled to demand a refund upfront. This is when it helps to revisit those consumer guarantees.
“Under Australian Consumer Law, you can reject goods received when there is a major failure in the product if it’s unsafe, doesn’t fit the description or is substantially unfit for the purpose it’s designed for.”
Ms Innes cautions – never forget that suppliers cannot legally take these basic consumer rights away. This includes, for example, where a supplier has a “no refunds” policy on the goods sold, where there’s a manufacturer’s warranty or where a retailer has imposed a time frame for raising issues.
“All consumer guarantees are for a reasonable period,” she said.
“If you discover a defect down the track and it’s outside the retailer’s internal refund policy, it doesn’t end their liability.”
Equally, you may not be automatically entitled to the resolution you prefer, according to Ms Innes.
“For example, if you want to return something with a problem classified as a minor failure, you can’t automatically demand a refund,” she explained.
“The supplier may offer you a replacement or repair instead, and that’s within their rights.”
Ms Innes said while the law left some room for subjectivity in the word “reasonable”, most buyers and sellers knew when something was owing. But she had some advice for consumers pursuing their rights under Australian Consumer Law.
“Be calm and reasonable in your approach. Remember sometimes the person you’re dealing with is just an employee who may not know the answer,” she said.
“Be assertive, not aggressive, know your rights and ask for a remedy. Most suppliers in Australia are reasonable and want to manage customer relationships well. They’re willing to respond and negotiate.”
On the other hand, there are a few options for the odd circumstances where a consumer feels they’re owed something that the supplier is refusing.
“First consider if it’s worthwhile pursuing. A $20 toaster that you feel fails to deliver its consumer guarantees wouldn’t warrant the same energy and expense as a high-end vehicle,” she said.
“Remember the ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) does not intervene in individual disputes. However, if you suspect a supplier is contravening the law but don’t want to pursue litigation, you can file a report with the ACCC or with Access Canberra. This report will go into their database and if they establish a pattern, it could trigger an investigation.
“If it does come to litigation, document everything. Gather any proof of purchase, records of conversations with retailers, email yourself any relevant notes – anything that’ll help inform your lawyers and court as to the timeline of events and who said what will be very helpful in ultimately proving your case.”
For more information phone BAL Lawyers on 6274 0999.