Wedding venues are potentially breaking the law by exploiting unfair terms and conditions to avoid refunding couples for cancellations due to coronavirus, a new Which? investigation reveals.
Many frustrated couples have contacted Which? as they are struggling to get refunds, often worth tens of thousands of pounds, from venues for weddings cancelled or postponed due to the coronavirus crisis, in line with the government’s March 23 ban on large gatherings for weddings.
Of the 25 couples Which? has spoken to, 20 said their wedding venue refused to offer a refund or made the process for obtaining a refund difficult. A similar proportion said they had not been offered like-for-like dates or offered a refund if the price for the postponed date was cheaper. 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.
The consumer champion is reporting 12 wedding venues and organisers to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). 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 outlined its expectations for businesses, in most cases, to 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.
Which? received most complaints 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 liable to pay a cancellation fee of 80 per cent of the total cost of their weddings.
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.
Bijou told Which? the new contract uploaded to the site was a blank template and appeared due to an IT error. Which? has seen the new terms that appeared on the site after some couples were able to take a screenshot of the contract before it was removed.
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. 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.
Which? has also heard from Bijou customers who said the venue suggested they claim with their insurer to avoid refunding customers for cancelled weddings.
Claudia had booked her wedding at Bijou’s Botleys Mansion venue. When the venue cancelled and asked for an 80% 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.
Most wedding insurers had 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.
Another couple, Marcus and Georgina, said they had endured a “torturous” experience with the company. They were disappointed when Bijou’s Botleys Mansion refused to refund the price difference after their weekend wedding in June was postponed to a weekday. The venue insisted the CMA’s guidance would not entitle them to reimbursement if a like-for-like replacement is not available.
Emily and Louie, who had paid over £20,000 for their wedding at Bijou’s Cain Manor, said they “could not express the stress and heartbreak” caused by the venue who have not offered a like-for-like new date and refused to refund the difference.
Which? believes these complaints are just the tip of the iceberg and there could be an industry-wide issue when it comes to refunds and cancellations.
As well as two Bijou Weddings venues, Which? has shared information with the CMA on 10 other wedding venues who have potentially unfair terms and conditions or have potentially breached the regulator’s guidance, including Tournerbury Woods Estate in Hampshire.
The Hampshire-based venue claimed one couple would forfeit their fee if they wanted to rebook their cancelled May wedding for the same time next year. The couple has now been offered a refund, but only after weeks of trying to arrive at a solution.
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.”
Notes to editor
Rights of reply
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 (around eight or nine) 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.” It said, “Without cancellation charges like these, the industry would not be able to offer to consumers what it does at the prices that it does. The cancellation charges protect the venues, and there is wedding insurance to protect the couple”. It stated, “We did not cancel any weddings voluntarily – it was imposed on us – and this is exactly the situation for which wedding insurance exists.” It told Which? Thursday-Sunday postponement dates were one of many options offered to couples.
Tournerbury Woods Estate said: “We have used our best endeavours to try and accommodate each of the couples’ varying needs and requirements to help with postponing their big day, to a day next year when we all hope the Covid 19 crisis will be over. Fortunately, we have managed to find a fairly swift and workable solution for the majority of the couples that have had to postpone their weddings.”
Which? is a non-profit organisation working to make life simpler, fairer and safer for consumers. During the coronavirus crisis, Which? is making a range of news, advice and guides available for free for anyone who needs it at: https://www.which.co.uk/news/coronavirus/
Which? advice if you are struggling to get a refund from your venue: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2020/05/coronavirus-outbreak-cancelled-or-postponed-events-can-i-get-my-money-back/