A consumer contract is a legally binding agreement between you and the trader concerning the sale of goods or services.
It is a myth to say that a valid contract must be written. Contracts can also be made verbally, or even silently, for example when you select items in a shop and pay at a self-service till.
What the law says
A legally binding consumer contract must have the following elements:
Offer - firstly there must be an offer from you the consumer to buy a good or service. For example:
- You remove an item from the shelf and take it to the checkout;
- You are doing online shopping and click 'add to basket';
- You place an order from a catalogue or brochure; or
- You request a quote from a plasterer.
Acceptance - then there must be acceptance of the offer from the trader. For example:
Examples of you accepting the offer:
- The shop assistant puts the goods through the till;
- The web retailer sends a confirmation email to say the order has been received and payment has been taken;
- The trader accepts and takes payment for an order placed from their brochure; or
- You agree to the quote and the plasterer rings to arrange the start date for job.
The consumer must be legally capable of making a contract. Examples of when people, depending on the situation, may not have legal capacity include:
- If they are too young;
- If they have mental health issues;
- If they are under the influence of drugs.
Terms in written consumer contracts e.g. on a website, email or printed, set out what the trader agrees to do, and what is expected of you as the consumer. Not all contracts will have written terms, but you may find it difficult to prove if there has been a breach of contract if the contract was verbal.
In consumer law, some terms are automatically part of a contract for the sale of goods or the supply of services (with or without goods). For example, it is to be expected that goods are all of the following:
- of satisfactory quality
- as described
- fit for purpose
It is also expected that services will be carried out with reasonable care and skill, within a reasonable time (if no time agreed beforehand) and at a reasonable charge (if the cost is not agreed beforehand).
It is against the law for a trader to take away a consumer's 'statutory rights' in their contract terms, on their website or brochure or through a notice in their business premises. For example, any terms or notices that say ‘No refunds’ or ‘Sold as seen’ are breaking the law.
The Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013 require traders to provide certain pre-contract information to consumers, and to do so ‘in a clear and comprehensible manner’. The goods services or digital content must be provided as stated in the pre-contract information, and any change has to be agreed between you the consumer and the trader.
Unfair contract terms
Under the Unfair Terms Provisions in the Consumer Rights Act 2015, a contract term or notice displayed by a trader must meet what is called the ‘fairness test’. This has three considerations:
i.e. written in plain language and free of jargon
i.e. easy to find and not be hidden in small print
i.e. does not create significant imbalance, in favour of the trader, to the detriment of consumers.
A term or notice that is found to be unfair is not legally binding.
Breach of contract
If the trader or you do not do what was agreed in the contract - for example, you may not receive the correct goods, or the service was not delivered on time, or you may not return items to a web retailer within the required timeframe, this is called being in 'breach of contract'.
To understand your rights in these instances see the Consumer Rights section.
Who to contact
If you are experiencing difficulties regarding a contract you have entered into, or you feel you may be subject to an unfair contract term, contact:
Consumerline on 0300 123 6262. Consumerline is managed by Trading Standards Service.