Avoid!

Photo by Eiliv-Sonas Aceron on Unsplash

The above photograph conveys everything that is pleasant about staying in a nice hotel or boutique guesthouse.

Sadly, this was not the case for one couple, Mr and Mrs Jenkinson, who had booked into accommodation (the Broadway Hotel) in the English seaside resort of Blackpool in 2014. The couple were so disappointed by the lack of basic hygiene standards and facilities that they were motivated to leave a review on Tripadvisor – a very bad review, in fact, which did the establishment absolutely no favours.

How did the hotel respond?

Not in the way that you would think the management should have responded i.e. by issuing the couple with a grovelling apology and, possibly, a refund?

No, the couple were checking their credit card statement some days after their review had been posted and noticed that £100 had been charged to their account by the Broadway Hotel. Surely, this must have been some oversight or mistake? Following further enquiries by the couple, they discovered that the hotel had levied the charge because they had the nerve to leave a bad review on Tripadvisor about the very poor standards they had experienced while staying there.

When the couple objected to this, the establishment told them to check the small print in its booking documents – which Mrs Jenkinson had admittedly signed. True enough, buried somewhere in the small print was a statement to the effect:

Despite the fact that repeat customers and couples love our hotel, your friends and family may not. … For every bad review left on any website, the group organiser will be charged a maximum £100 per review.

Now, the Broadway Hotel was by no means luxury accommodation (the Jenkinsons had paid £36 for an overnight stay), but even budget hotels must meet basic standards such as adequate hygiene. The hotel failed miserably to meet these standards. More and more often, we do rely on the experiences of other people to guide us in our choices as consumers and the Jenkinsons were posting a fair comment review on Tripadvisor. The ability of businesses and traders to prevent consumers doing this would clearly be a retrograde development.

At the time, the story went viral and Mr and Mrs Jenkinson were invited on to the BBC Television’s Breakfast show to talk about their experiences. Needless to say, the hotel got more than it bargained for with the adverse media publicity and Blackpool Council’s Trading Standards Department taking a keen interest in its business practices.

A link to the story on the BBC website about the Jenkinsons’ experiences at the Broadway Hotel, Blackpool in 2014 can be found below:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-30100973

Was this clause enforceable?

At the time of the story breaking, I fortuitously happened to be teaching Unfair Terms in Contract Law to two of my classes. I had never seen a clause like this before and informed my students that it was very unlikely to be capable of enforcement by the hotel given its blatant unfairness – let alone the implications for freedom of speech in the UK.

I’ve long wanted to write about the Jenkinsons’ experience and I was reminded of their story some weeks ago when teaching a group of students about unfair terms in contracts.

Normally, when I discuss this area of the law, I make students aware that businesses used to be extremely trigger happy when using all sorts of unfair terms in contracts in order to avoid their responsibilities to customers.

Prior to the introduction of the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977 (about more later), businesses and other organisations could exclude or limit their liability for causing death and personal injury so long as adequate notice of the existence of the term was brought to the attention of the other party to the contract.

So, for example, if a garage owner wished to exclude his liability to a customer who put a vehicle in for repairs or a service, he could simply alert the customer to the existence of an exclusion or limitation clause in the contract. The customer leaves the car to have the brakes fixed; picks the car up later; the mechanic has been negligent and not carried out the work properly; the customer later suffers a terrible accident because the brakes haven’t been fixed. Hey presto, no need to worry because the garage owner could point to his standard terms of business which contained an exclusion clause. In effect, the exclusion clause was a get out of jail card.

Another tactic often deployed was where the business could argue that the customer had constructive notice of the existence of the unfair term e.g. the customer should have read the documents presented to him or her. Mrs Jenkinson had signed the booking documents presented to her by the Broadway Hotel. She later admitted that she did not read the terms because she did not have her spectacles with her.

On occasion, the courts might intervene and side with a party objecting to the enforcement of an unfair term under a number of judicial doctrines:

  • the repugnancy rule
  • fundamental breach
  • the contra proferentum rule

Despite judicial intervention, the odds were still stacked against parties who wished to challenge the inherent unfairness and abusive nature of attempts by traders and businesses to exclude or limit their liability.

Sensibly, the UK Parliament decided to tackle what was becoming the Wild West of contractual terms and passed the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977 which made such attempts to evade liability automatically void.

Generally speaking, the Act made it much harder (but not impossible) for businesses to impose other unfair terms on consumers. Businesses, on the other hand, were still, advised to read the small print of any agreements that they were contemplating entering, although courts would be more sympathetic if a larger business tried to use its unequal bargaining power to impose unfair terms on a smaller business.

The European Union also passed legislation (European Council Directive 93/13 on Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts and, for a while, the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations of 1994 and 1999 respectively were in force. These were later repealed and replaced by the Consumer Rights Act 2015, although the terms of the Directive live on in this legislation (remember: EU Law is hardwired into UK national laws).

Along the way, the Enterprise Act 2002 and the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 severely restricted the ability of businesses and traders to impose very unfavourable terms on consumers.

The net effect of all of this legislation was that consumers were really protected against the imposition of unfair terms by traders and businesses. Consumers were often deemed to be the weaker party in a relationship with traders and businesses and, therefore, needed to be protected.

Returning to the Jenkinsons’ experience at the a Broadway Hotel, it is worth emphasising that the couple were being provided with accommodation services as consumers and, therefore, would have been entitled to the benefit of existing UK consumer protection laws on the statute books in 2014.

Had this incident occurred in 2020, the Jenkinsons would, of course, have been able to challenge the legality of the penalty clause primarily in terms of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 and the Consumer Rights Act 2015.

Conclusion

Happily, we have come a long way in consumer law where businesses could previously impose all sorts of unfair, not to say downright abusive, terms on customers.

We are now in a position, where UK consumers will be protected by legislative safeguards which should ensure that these types of terms will not be permitted to stand i.e. they will be automatically void or simply unenforceable. The penalty clause which the Jenkinsons experienced would doubtless have fallen foul of consumer protection legislation had the issue got anywhere near a court room. Nonetheless, it was an interesting example of the inventiveness of businesses regarding the creation of new types of unfair terms in contracts.

It remains the case, however, that in business to business contracts (or in private transactions), it will be highly advisable for parties to remain wary about the potential unfairness of contractual terms. Only the most outrageous and downright abusive terms (such as excluding or limiting liability for death or personal injury) will be automatically void – no matter how much notice of their existence has been given by the party seeking to rely on them. If a business is seeking to have a clause declared void or unenforceable, the debate to be had in terms of the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977 will often centre around the perceived reasonableness (or otherwise) of the clause.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 1 March 2020

The watchdog that didn’t bark ..

Photo by Paul Thomas on Unsplash

In Chapter 1 of Introductory Scots Law, I discuss the role of regulatory bodies. This was also a subject that I commented on in three previous blogs (Watchdogs published on 14 March 2019; No more heartbreak hotel? also published on 14 March 2019; and Stuck at Red published on 22 March 2019).

Regulatory bodies (usually established under statutory authority) can provide important safeguards for the public by ensuring that there is a system of effective oversight in place to police the activities of businesses. Traditionally, consumers are usually in a much weaker position (economically speaking) when it comes to their relationships with business organisations – especially bigger concerns. In essence, the regulators exist to uphold and fight for the public interest (e.g. to guarantee consumer choice) and to ensure free and fair competition in various market places e.g. the utilities market or the financial services market.

As we have seen, regulators such as the Competition and Markets Authority can crack down on all sorts of unfair and misleading commercial practices which have a negative impact on consumers (No more heartbreak hotel?).

What if the regulator fails?

Regulators aren’t always effective and can sometimes fail to carry out their duty of care. The now defunct Financial Services Authority (which was previously a major UK regulator) is accused of failing in its duty of care. This concerns the merger between the Co-op Bank and the Britannia Building Society. The charge against the Financial Services Authority is that the merger was given the green light despite serious misgivings about the wisdom of this tie-up between the two organisations being voiced. A major review of the merger in 2009 (chaired by Sir Christopher Kelly) has concluded that it should not have been allowed to proceed.

Please see links to the story which was reported by the BBC and Sky News last week:

Co-op Bank and Britannia merger ‘should never have happened’

The Co-operative Bank’s merger with the Britannia building society in 2009 should never have happened, a major review of the organisation has concluded.

Co-op Bank left ‘defenceless’ by regulator in ill-fated merger

https://news.sky.com/story/co-op-bank-left-defenceless-by-regulator-in-ill-fated-merger-11676710

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 3 April 2019

Stuck at red …

Photo by Erwan Hesry on Unsplash

Two interesting stories appeared in the UK media today which highlight the important role of regulatory bodies in the field of consumer protection. This is a topic which has already been considered in a number of recent posts (Watchdogs and No more heartbreak hotel?) both published on 14 March 2019.

The first story involves the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) which has effectively shown the red light to the proposed merger between the two supermarket chains, ASDA and Sainsbury’s. Any newly merged company would have tremendous economic power and such a development could adversely affect the interests of UK consumers e.g. by restricting consumer choice. In response to this setback, both retailers have offered to sell off approximately 150 supermarkets and some petrol stations in the hope that the CMA may eventually be persuaded to allow the merger to go ahead.

The second story involves the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) which has banned the use of adverts by 150 autism therapists who claim that a controversial practice, involving high doses of vitamin C and zinc, known as CEASE (Complete Elimination of Autistic Spectrum Expression) can ‘cure’ the condition. The ASA has issued these therapists with an enforcement notice telling them to stop making and advertising such claims that CEASE is an effective treatment for autism. According to the ASA, these assertions are being made without “proper scientific foundation” and “could seriously harm children”.

Links to the two stories can be found below:

Ad watchdog orders 150 ‘autism cure’ therapists to stop
http://news.sky.com/story/ad-watchdog-orders-150-autism-cure-therapists-to-stop-11672357

Sainsbury’s and Asda offer to sell supermarkets to merge

The chains tell the UK competition watchdog they would sell up to 150 supermarkets to be able to merge.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 22 March 2019

No more heartbreak hotel?

Photo by KEEM IBARRA on Unsplash

In Chapter 1 of Introductory Scots Law, I discussed alternative methods of resolving issues or disputes which may have legal consequences.

In particular, I focused on the role of regulatory bodies which can assist members of the public e.g. consumers to lodge complaints and have these disputes resolved relatively inexpensively.

One of these regulatory bodies with an important role to play in consumer law is the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) . This organisation aims to ensure that there is a level playing field for consumers and that businesses do not exploit an often dominant position in the market place.

A recent story which threw some light on the work of the CMA concerned misleading pricing and marketing policies which were being used by some hotel booking websites. In particular, the CMA found that some booking companies were using high pressure tactics to get consumers to finalise a booking. A favourite tactic being used by the booking sites was to give consumers the impression that demand for rooms at certain hotels was far greater than was actually the case.

Consumers do have recourse to the law – the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Practices Regulations 2008 is one such example (see Chapter 4 of Introductory Scots Law). That said, taking individual legal action can be fraught with risk for consumers. It is often better if a regulator, such as the CMA, is willing to go to the barricades on behalf of consumers generally in an attempt to get businesses to play fair – either by means of (gentle) persuasion or by threats of legal action.

As a result of the intervention by the CMA, hotel booking sites will now have to behave more transparently in their interactions with actual and potential customers.

A link to a CMA press release concerning hotel booking websites can be found below:

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/hotel-booking-sites-to-make-major-changes-after-cma-probe

A link to a BBC report about the CMA investigation can be found below:

I saw this on the BBC News App and thought you should see it:

Hotel booking sites to end ‘misleading’ sales

Hotels agree to be clearer about discount claims and stop high-pressure selling tactics.

Copyright – Seán J Crossan, 14 March 2019