The Sale of Goods Act: your consumer rights

Updated on 17 January 2017

The Sale of Goods Act offers extensive and automative protection to shoppers.

When does the Act apply?

The Act applies if you buy new or second-hand goods from a seller in the course of a business. When this happens, terms are automatically implied into that contract and you acquire rights against the retailer.

That all sounds a little complex, right? Basically it means that when you buy goods, you enter into a contract with the seller. And that contract gives you, the buyer, a number of rights.

The goods you buy need to meet three criteria - they must be as described, fit for purpose and of satisfactory quality. Let's take a look at exactly what each of those criteria means in practice.

(Note: the Act is designed for face to face transactions as the Distance Selling regulations will protect you if you buy online.)

Are the goods as described?

This is a nice easy one – a label saying 100% cotton means exactly that.

Anything falling short of that description would give you the right to return your item for a refund.  

Are the goods fit for their purpose?

This covers not only the obvious purpose, or purposes, of an item but any particular purpose you make known and were given assurances about. For example, if you specifically ask for ink which is compatible with your printer, and it isn’t, the Act would apply.

Satisfactory quality

This is the biggie as it covers a multitude of sins. Satisfactory quality is defined as what a ‘reasonable person’ would regard as satisfactory. But who is that mythical being?  It basically means an objective viewpoint and you should ask yourself whether a level headed person would agree with you. Although it can be debateable, there are a range of features which can be taken into account:

  • Description and fitness for purpose – these factors also play a part here;  
  • The price – if you’ve flashed the cash, the law supports you in expecting more from a product, so it matters if you shopped at a high end department store or a pound shop;
  • Appearance and finish – you are allowed to be picky (although this is more relevant to new items). If a fridge is scratched, or has a dent but works perfectly, you can still enforce your rights;
  • Freedom from minor defects – don’t be put off complaining if you find a few small problems;
  • Safety – an automatic indication of a faulty item;
  • Durability – the courts have made clear you can expect goods to last a certain amount of time, but how long is reasonable?

The six-month/six-year rule

Durability is a common source of complaint and dispute, but thanks to some European regulations, if a product breaks down within the first six months, you are automatically entitled to a repair or replacement. In this case, unless the retailer can prove the item was not faulty, it has to comply within a reasonable time, without causing you significant inconvenience and bearing any costs, such as postage for replacement parts.

However, the seller can decide which option to take if it can show one is cheaper and this may even include a refund instead.

If a problem appears beyond the six-month period, the burden of proof reverses. This means you have to prove there was a fault in the product when you bought the goods, even if it has taken some time to come to light.

To do this you would have to show the problem was not due to normal wear and tear or damage you caused, and that the product should have lasted longer than it did. An expert’s report may be necessary to back you up or a relevant trade association may also provide evidence of average lifespans.

The act also give you the right to free repairs or refunds on certain items for up to six years after your made the purchase.

This doesn't apply to all goods: the act merely states it will apply when the item in question should reasonably be expected to last that long. So pricier white goods could fall into this category, for example, whereas a hairdryer might not.


Your money back

The other main remedy is a refund in which case you should ‘reject’ the item within a ‘reasonable time’ or you may be deemed to have accepted it. 

Once again, this nebulous phrase introduces uncertainty but it is flexible and will depend upon the product and how quickly the fault came to light. It is always safest to act fast and as soon as you discover a defect, you should attempt to return the item.

Watch out for these

You get minimal legal protection if you buy from a private seller, but you can rely on the term that goods will meet their description, for example, if you buy an inaccurately described item from a consumer on eBay.

If a fault is explicitly pointed out, such as labels highlighting damaged clothes, you cannot then return them saying they’re faulty (unless you discover another unrelated defect which was not made clear).

Don’t be pushed into purchasing an extended warranty. Insist on your statutory rights and remember, you have six years to enforce them in a court.

Although shops are more likely to say you can’t change your mind about sale items, your statutory rights still offer you protection.

But on the bright side, you may find a shop has a generous returns policy, (which exists in addition to your legal rights) and you won’t even have to mention the Sale of Goods Act.

More: Your rights if you change your mind | Your rights when stores mis-price items


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