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Voucher and gift card rights amid coronavirus lockdown and cancellations

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25/03/2020
If you have a voucher or gift card you’re unable to use or a firm is offering credit instead of cash for a cancelled or postponed good or service, here are your consumer rights.

The coronavirus pandemic is affecting every aspect of our lives and each day brings with it changes to the way we work, socialise and shop.

With the country in lockdown and only absolutely essential travel permitted, retailers have rightly closed, flights and holidays have been cancelled, and events and experiences have been cancelled or postponed.

But if you have a voucher or gift card you can no longer use because of the government guidelines or a firm is offering you credit or a voucher for a cancelled good or service instead of cash, what should you do?

Dean Dunham, solicitor advocate and consumer rights lawyer at Debello Law, answers some common questions:

Voucher or gift card to spend…

Q) I have a gift card/voucher for a shop or experience but as everything is closed due to the lockdown, what are my options/rights?

A) The person who bought the gift card/voucher did so under a contract as every transaction is a contract. But that contract has become ‘frustrated’ as the parties can’t perform under them because of what’s happening amid coronavirus.

There are two options: one is to extend the date which is what most are likely to do, or the other is to give a full refund.

Whether you’re automatically entitled to a full refund depends on the terms and conditions. ‘Force majeure’ is a very common clause in contracts which deals with unforeseen circumstances or ‘acts of God’. This means if a company has a binding clause and if there is a ‘force majeure’ event which means services are suspended and can’t be performed under the contract, the contract can’t be cancelled.

In consumer contracts this can look quite unfair. However, given the current circumstances, you should be offered a change of date or a refund.

Q) What would happen if a firm went bust and I’ve yet to spend my voucher?

A) It would be extremely rare to get your money back in this scenario. When retailers have gone into administration in the past, they have allowed vouchers and gift cards to be spent in the first few days but then they fall by the wayside. If a company goes bust, you’ve lost your money.

Q) What if my voucher/gift card is due to expire soon?

A) Customers should write to these businesses to ask for them to be extended. There’s no way they won’t extend, but if they refuse, they will need to refund instead. Technically this needs to be done by the person who bought the voucher or gift card as that contract was formed with the purchaser.

Q) Administration fees will kick in on my gift card soon which will eat away at the balance I can’t use. Will these be waived?

A) It may be too soon on this but in my view, these fees should be waived. The delay in using the gift card is not the consumer’s fault.

Q) I have vouchers from the likes of Wowcher and Groupon. What are my rights and options here? The T&Cs are usually very strict.

A) I’m hoping these companies do the right thing and change their terms. When you buy something, you expect to get what it says on the tin. Customers can’t meet those terms. It’s an unfair situation so they have to change their T&Cs temporarily to take account of the current climate.

Q) What about lost, expired or defaced vouchers/gift cards. Can I get my money back?

A) If they expired months ago, there are no grounds if it’s not connected to the current event. People will always try but they have no legal standing.

Voucher or credit offered instead of cash…

Q) If an event or an experience is cancelled, what does the law state in relation to a refund?

A) You are entitled to a refund. However, a lot of firms – such as airlines – are hoping to preserve cash which is why they are offering vouchers or credit. But you don’t have to accept the voucher.

The law isn’t different if you paid by cash, credit card or debit card. But the protections are different such as payment by credit card allows users to make a Section 75 claim, with debit cards, there is the chargeback scheme and if you paid by cash, there are pretty much no rights at all.

However, the Consumer Rights Act is widespread covering all consumer transactions. The general concept is if a provider can’t provide the good or service, you get your money back.

When it comes to airlines, there is the European law EC261 which protects consumers when flights are cancelled or delayed.

Q) My event/experience/holiday has been cancelled. I’ve been offered a voucher of a higher value to the amount I originally paid. Should I accept it?

A) We are in unprecedented times and any business can go bust. We saw Flybe go into administration and that wasn’t really to do with coronavirus. I personally wouldn’t accept a voucher or credit note. If a firm does go out of business – which could happen in these times – you will lose your money.

For those with a package holiday, you’re currently protected by ABTA. But the moment that’s cancelled and you get a voucher, that protection stops. Some people think they’re still protected by ABTA, but they’re not.

ABTA is pushing for the package travel regulations to be suspended meaning customers may only be offered vouchers for package holidays. Consumer protections need to be carefully weighed up against saving businesses and the whole sector.

A lot of the companies are taking this as if the package travel regulations have already been suspended which is why they’re offering vouchers.

Q) I’m being told I can only receive a voucher, not my money/cash back, is that right?

A) It’s all about self-preservation at the moment. There’s no money coming in to companies but money is coming out – they have to stop the tap. However, the consumer is entitled to their money back, they don’t have to accept a voucher or credit.

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