Off-premises & distance contracts – your top five questions answered

Business Companion supports you to achieve and maintain compliance with trading standards and consumer laws. How does it do this? It is designed by trading standards and consumer law professionals, in collaboration with business, to provide you with clear, accurate and practical advice.

It is this collaboration with business that enables Business Companion to focus on the questions that you want answers to.

If you sell goods or services to consumers away from your business premises, if your business is set up to sell online, by phone or mail order, or if you sell downloaded and streamed digital content, this Q&A is for you. It gives answers to the top five questions businesses ask about off-premises and distance contracts.

Business Companion has an insider's view of the business world, which means you don't just get legal answers, you get practical ones too.

Q. I don't think consumers are interested in 'small print'. They just want me to look at the property damage, give them a decent price for the repair and sign the contract. Why do I have to give them information before they go ahead?

A. The law sets out rules about information that you must give to consumers. It's not just about compliance, it's about being fair and reasonable to consumers. The bonus for you and the consumer is that if a dispute arises after the work has been done, you both have a record of what was agreed.

For most contracts, you must give the consumer certain information, usually in writing or by email, before the contract is made. This includes details about you, the repair and any materials you intend to provide, the price, cancellation information, as well as a cancellation form.

You may find that some of the information is the same for each contract - for example, your business name and contact details - so it can be pre-printed on your business paperwork or in a template email, which you can adapt for each contract. After the contract is made, you must give the consumer a copy of the signed contract or confirmation of the contract on paper or some other durable form, such as email.

Did you know that for most contracts, a consumer has 14 days to cancel? For a repair, it would run from the day after the contract was made and for materials it would run from the day after a consumer takes delivery. Be aware that if you do not give the consumer details of his right to cancel (if it applies to his type of contract), it is a criminal offence and the cancellation period can be extended by up to 12 months.

It certainly pays to get up to speed with the rules as soon as possible.

Q. What happens if I visit a consumer and he wants me to go ahead with a roof repair straight away?

A. There is nothing in law that prevents you from agreeing to this, but make sure you play by the rules. If the consumer makes it absolutely clear that he wants the repairs to start straight away, he must confirm it to you in writing or by email. You are required to inform the consumer that he loses the right to cancel once the service has been completed, but if the service is only partially completed, you can charge for the work you have done.

Bear in mind that you cannot charge if you did not give the required cancellation information and details of the charges that would apply.

Q. I have an online business and recently a consumer returned goods to me within the cancellation period? The consumer is expecting a refund but I noticed the goods have been returned in a damaged condition. Do I still have to refund in full?

A. No, because the law offers you some protection. Consumers have the right to check the goods over when they receive them to decide if they are suitable or not. However, if the goods are handled in a way that is unreasonable and they are damaged or devalued in some way, you may be entitled to make a deduction from the refund due to the consumer or, if the goods are totally damaged, to not refund at all.

On a different note, if you sell through an internet auction, the consumer has the same rights against you as he would if he bought the goods direct, regardless of whether they are sold through the auction or via 'buy it now'.

Q. My internet business sells t-shirts that are personalised to the individual requirements of the consumer. I fulfilled an order but the consumer tells me he's changed his mind and want to cancel. Do I have to agree to this?

A. No, there are exceptions to the right to cancel and this situation is one of them. Goods that are made to a consumer's specification or are clearly personalised are not covered. To avoid any confusion on the part of the consumer, you should make this clear in your online terms and conditions.

However, if a consumer rejects a t-shirt because it is faulty, whether it is personalised or not, the law says you must refund his money.

Q. I've just set up a business selling downloaded and streamed digital content, mainly films and music. What are the cancellation rules for this type of purchase?

A. A consumer has 14 days to cancel starting the day after day the purchase was finalised.

Of course, in practice, the consumer might want to download or stream his film or music straight away and not want to wait until the end of the cancellation period. You can supply the digital content within the cancellation period if the consumer clearly requests this and acknowledges that by doing so, he loses his right to cancel. You must then confirm this request and acknowledgement as part of the confirmation of purchase.

If one of these steps is missed out, the consumer may be able to cancel within the cancellation period without paying for the digital content you supplied.

This information is intended for guidance; only the courts can give an authoritative interpretation of the law.

Relevant In-depth Guides

'Consumer contracts - off-premises sales'
'Consumer contracts - distance sales'
'Internet auction sites & marketplaces'
'The sale & supply of goods'
'The supply of services'
'Digital content'
'Returns policies'