Some UK wedding venues may be breaking the law by using unfair small print to get out of refunding couples for ceremonies cancelled due to the coronavirus crisis, according to an investigation by consumer body Which?
With the UK’s wedding season normally in full swing at this time of the year, some couples who have been unable to get married because of the lockdown potentially face being left thousands of pounds out of pocket.
Which? said couples had effectively been “jilted at the altar” by venues which had cancelled their big day and then pocketed their cash. One company has allegedly been imposing a cancellation fee of 80% of the total cost of the event.
The UK competition watchdog is already probing the wedding sector over alleged breaches of the law linked to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Now, Which? has said it believes the complaints it had also received might be “just the tip of the iceberg,” and that there may be a “serious, industry-wide issue with wedding venues ducking their legal responsibilities on refunds and cancellations”.
Which? said many frustrated couples had contacted it to say they were struggling to get refunds – often worth tens of thousands of pounds – from venues for nuptials that had either been cancelled or postponed in line with the government’s 23 March ban on weddings.
As well as affecting thousands of couples who were due to tie the knot during the past few weeks, the ban has also left many with a summer or autumn 2020 wedding coming up unsure about whether their event will happen as planned – or at all.
Of the 25 couples Which? said it had spoken to, 20 said their wedding venue had refused to offer a refund, or made the process for obtaining a refund difficult. A similar number said they had not been offered like-for-like dates or offered a refund if the price for the postponed date was cheaper.
Meanwhile, 17 couples said their venue had charged a fee to rebook or cancel their wedding, while 15 couples said their venue had introduced new terms and conditions.
Which? said it was reporting 12 wedding venues and organisers to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which in late April announced a probe into three sectors that it said were “particular areas of concern” when it came to consumer rights, refunds and excessive price hikes. One of the three sectors was weddings.
On 21 May, the CMA said it had opened cases “in respect of certain companies in these sectors”, and that it “will not hesitate to take enforcement action” if there was evidence that businesses had breached competition or consumer protection law.
With weddings, the CMA was particularly concerned to hear that some venues were refusing to refund any money, and were telling people to claim on their insurance.
Which? said the largest number of complaints it had received involved Bijou, a wedding venue company based in Maidenhead, Berkshire.
“Some of the couples that had booked with Bijou said the venue told them just before the government announced a ban … that not only had their weddings been cancelled, but that they were liable to pay a cancellation fee of 80% of the total cost of their weddings,” said the consumer body.
One customer, Claudia, had booked her wedding at Bijou’s Botleys Mansion venue in Surrey, said Which?
When the venue cancelled and asked for an 80% cancellation fee, it suggested she claim the money back from her insurer and use the money to rebook. But most insurers have refused to pay out for cancellations, so Claudia risked being left out of pocket and with no idea if or when she would be able to get her money back, it added.
In a statement, Bijou said: “We understand the heartache and difficulties many couples are going through at this time. We have done, and continue to do, everything in our power to support them – offering a variety of postponement options for both later this year and for the same month next year as their original wedding, if possible.”
But it said that because of its various overheads, “we have no option other than to protect the business through our cancellation charge structure”.