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Wedding venues accused of pocketing couples’ cash

Written by: Emma Lunn
Wedding venues are potentially breaking the law by exploiting unfair terms and conditions to avoid refunding couples for cancellations due to coronavirus.

An investigation by Which? found many couples who planned to marry during the pandemic are struggling to get refunds, often worth tens of thousands of pounds, from wedding venues.

The Government banned large gatherings, including weddings, on 23 March. The ban meant weddings scheduled for this spring and summer had to be cancelled or postponed.

Trouble getting refunds

Of the 25 couples Which? spoke 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.

The venue charged a fee to rebook or cancel their wedding in 17 cases, while 15 couples said their venue introduced new terms and conditions.

The consumer champion is reporting 12 wedding venues and organisers to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

Unfair terms and conditions

Which? 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. This 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.

Bijou Weddings

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.

Wedding insurance

Which? has also heard from Bijou customers who said the venue suggested they claim with their insurer to avoid refunding customers for cancelled weddings.

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.

One couple, Marcus and Georgina, 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.

Industry-wide issues

Which? believes the complaints it has heard 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, says: “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.”

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