Don't get ripped off by dodgy restaurants
We explain your legal rights if your meal is spoilt by the poor quality of the food.
With Christmas only six weeks away, you might find yourself frequenting restaurants more often than usual as the furious rush to ‘catch up before Christmas’ ensues.
Indulging in the festive run up should be fun, but what’s the position if the food is disappointing? Is there a valid right to refuse to pay?
When you book a table, or turn up at a restaurant, you’re entering a legal contract with the eatery. And as you are being provided with a service, you automatically get rights under the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982.
This Act puts various obligations on a restaurant which include the following:
- any service should be provided with reasonable care and skill. So this would cover the preparation of your food and the service you receive;
- the service should be provided within a reasonable time. Is the time you have to wait for your dinner ‘unreasonable’ (more on that below); and
- food should be of a satisfactory quality and as described on the menu.
So some useful rights to know, but what does ‘reasonable’ mean? In my legal days, we were told a ‘reasonable man’ meant ‘the man on the Clapham omnibus’. Nope, I've not got a clue either.
Bus travelling males aside, whenever the phrase ‘reasonable’ is used in legislation, it’s referring to an objective test. For example, would a level-headed person agree with you that your chicken was dry and overcooked? Or are your standards inappropriate considering where you’re eating?
You can’t expect the same quality and care and skill at a burger joint as you would receive from a swanky hotel. Other than the need for the food to meet its description, the other tests have to adapt according to the venue.
The definition of ‘satisfactory’ is similarly vague - it’s what a reasonable person would regard as satisfactory. But you can take into account the description of the food, its price and any other relevant circumstances (e.g. buffets are rarely as good as menu service).
If the food’s not up to scratch, don’t swallow it…
It’s an obvious one but if you’re served food which is unsatisfactory (for the venue involved), for example if it’s cold or burnt or badly cooked, don’t polish off the lot! This would be interpreted as accepting the food and you would lose your right to complain.
And complain is what you must do. Remember though the law can’t cater for individual tastes and bad decisions. If you order something you just don’t like, you’ll have to pinch someone else’s chips and keep quiet.
But if there’s a problem with the food, you should report this when it is served or after a first taste. The restaurant is breaching its contract with you and you have a right to reject the food and have the cost deducted from your bill.
Restaurants are usually keen to put things right and will offer you an alternative. I’m never a fan of watching companions eat while I wait for another meal but it is an option (and you just pay for the replacement if it’s satisfactory).
Otherwise, if you don’t have the time or inclination to wait for different meal, you could eat some of the original food, avoiding the offending item and request that your bill is reduced by a reasonable amount.
Some places will go above and beyond to keep you happy; on a recent night out, I complained a platter was too salty and got a full refund despite managing to eat most of it.
Of course, it might not be that simple. Confrontations can be unpleasant and dampen an atmosphere and an establishment might refute your complaint and insist you settle the bill anyway. In this case, indicate you are ‘paying under protest’. Then, write to complain about the standard of the meal demanding a refund at a later date.
An empty belly
Going home from a restaurant still hungry is far from ideal but preferable to your stomach deciding to empty itself.
If you do get a tummy bug from eating out, you may be able to claim compensation and might want to consult a lawyer. The difficulty is proving a particular restaurant is at fault. If several members of a group get ill, that would strengthen your case.
It’s a criminal offence for a business to serve food that causes an illness and you should report poor hygiene or poor food to your local environmental health officer.
Have you ever had a fight with a restaurant? Why not share your experiences and tips with your fellow lovemoney.com readers in the comment box below?