Can Trading Standards help individual consumers?

1 – Do Trading Standards officers have the powers to force businesses to give money back to individual consumers?

2 – Do Trading Standards get involved in individual disputes between a consumer and a business? Will they help me in a dispute with a business?

There are straightforward legal answers to those questions – which differ slightly from the realty.

The role of Trading Standards is to enforce the law to in a general sense to protect all of society – rather than to help individual people. If some form of legal action is taken against a business, then usually individual examples from consumers will form part of the evidence. But the purpose of the action is not specifically to help that individual person but to hold the business to account.

Legal answer

Trading Standards do not have any powers to force a business to give a refund (or any other type of remedy) to a consumer. Our primary purpose is to enforce the law generally and that can be done via financial penalties (fines), going to the court for a criminal prosecution or to seek an enforcement order requiring refunds (or some other form of remedy) to be made. All of those options tend to be long winded, expensive, time consuming and only undertaken when the underlying issue justifies it (e.g. it must be a serious issue or affecting lots of consumers).

Trading Standards will not (in my view and experience) take enforcement action just to get money back for one individual consumer (or nor should they as it is not what we are supposed to do).

Trading Standards have no legal obligation to help any individual consumer in a dispute with a business. The Government funds the Citizens Advice Consumer Helpline to provide (basic) advice to consumers. It is up to the consumer to enforce their own rights via the county court.

It is worth pointing out that there are certain times a consumer may get a remedy as a by product of Trading Standards action. Say you buy a clocked car but the seller refuses to give a refund. If Trading Standards prosecute the seller for selling 10 clocked cars – the court may order the seller to refund or compensate all 10 customers. So, the benefit to the consumer is a by product of some form of enforcement action (e.g. a criminal prosecution in this example). But as I said above, the purpose of the enforcement action would be to hold the seller to account and send a message to other sellers – not to get refunds back per se – but clearly we want to get refunds when we can.

Non-legal answer

There is nothing to say a Trading Standards Officer cannot contact a business and try and resolve a dispute. In reality this just comes to whether we have the time and resources. But as stated above, there is no power to require a refund.

We often do it when we have concerns about a business and use the complaint as an example. Say someone is doing emergency plumbing work but not giving the full price upfront before the work is agreed and carried out. We may use the consumers example to discuss the matter with the business so that we can ensure they are complying with the law. A by-product of that contact may be that the business might refund the consumer. We have obtained good outcomes for consumers many times by doing this sort of thing.

In reality a lot of dodgy businesses understand that its easier giving a refund (or some other remedy such a partial discount or repair) to a few customers rather than having Trading Standards snooping into their wider business practices.

A consumer is much more likely to get this sort of assistance if there is some breach of Trading Standards law (i.e. there is a misleading practice). If you have bought a faulty product and cannot get a refund then it is very unlikely Trading Standards will get involved unless there is some underlying breach of Trading Standards law that needs to be resolved.

Back in the day when we had more staff we used to have ‘civil advice teams’ – these officers would provide more detailed advice to consumers and proactively contact businesses to try and resolve disputes. Due to austerity most departments no longer have such teams – although some have retained support for the most vulnerable consumers. If we still had these teams we could be getting lots of money back for consumers – not necessarily because we can force a business to – but as I said above, many businesses will offer refunds if a) they realise the law requires them b) to avoid Trading Standards looking at their business in more detail.

Some Trading Standards run approved trader schemes that businesses pay to be members of and some form of mediation may be included as part of that scheme. But obviously this only applies to businesses who are members of the scheme.

Note – there is not an assumption the consumer is always right. Often, we find the business have not done anything wrong. Ultimately when no resolution can be agreed it is up to the court to decide who is right or wrong and what the outcome should be.

So, to summarise – in 2022, it is unlikely Trading Standards will help you with your dispute – but it is not impossible. It very much depends on how many staff your Trading Standards department have and the nature of your dispute. If we had more Trading Standards Officers that were involved in civil advice and doing investigations, we definitely could get money back for consumers.

Why won’t Trading Standards help me with a faulty item or breach of contract?

If you have bought a faulty item or been provided with a poor quality service then you have the right under the Consumer Rights Act 2015 to obtain a remedy (e.g. refund or replacement) – either by agreement with the business or via the county court (if you cannot come to an agreement).

You can enforce these rights yourself and there is no requirement or process for Trading Standards to do it for you.

Trading Standards will only get involved if there is a breach of a law we are required to enforce.

That said, there is law (Enterprise Act 2002) that is supposed to prevent businesses that are not complying with the Consumer Rights Act 2015 on a scale that may be affecting multiple consumers – but as I say that doesn’t necessarily mean you will get assistance on an individual level. But you might if the business you are in dispute with is already subject to an investigation by Trading Standards. Unfortunately, this law is almost never enforced in my experience.

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