Goods and Services

Five steps you can take to make a complaint

If you are stuck in a dispute with a trader, for example about faulty goods or poor service, here are the steps to making a complaint.

Step 1. Contact the trader

Begin by letting the trader know as soon as you become aware of the issue. This gives the trader a chance to put things right.  Any good business will value your custom and be keen to hear your concerns. 

There will be times when it is better to put your complaint in writing, either by email or letter. This can be useful for more complex issues, or where you are failing to get anywhere with telephone calls.

If the trader has an official complaints procedure, follow the instructions to take the matter further.

Put some thought into how you structure your letter or email. Explain clearly what the problem is, and what you would like to be done about it. If you need help with this, The Consumer Council has template letters on our website at http://www.consumercouncil.org.uk/complaints/help-and-information/

Keep copies of all correspondence, and if you are sending supporting documentation, keep the originals and send photocopies.

If you are unhappy with the trader’s response, or you are dissatisfied with the way your complaint is handled, check if they are members of a trade association, and take your complaint further with them.  

Step 2. Contact your local consumer representation body

For queries and complaints about goods and services specifically, you can contact Consumerline, the telephone helpline run by Trading Standards Service on:

0300 123 6262 or www.nidirect.gov.uk

For queries and complaints about trains, plains, ferries, buses, electricity, gas, coal, postal services, water and sewerage, contact us at The Consumer Council on:

0800 121 6022 or www.consumercouncil.org.uk

There are also a number of advice services available including your local Citizens Advice, and independent advice centres.  If you live in Belfast, or the trader is based in Belfast, you can contact Belfast City Council’s Consumer Advice Centre

028 9027 0525 or  www.belfastcity.gov.uk/community/advice/consumeradviceservice.aspx

Step 3. Use an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) scheme

ADR is intended as a way of avoiding going to court.  In some sectors, the law makes it compulsory for the company to be signed up to an ADR provider.  For example, financial services customers can insist their complaint is referred to the Financial Ombudsman. Other sectors have some choice in which ADR scheme they join. This is the case for estate agents and telecommunications companies.

In other sectors the law does not require a trader to be part of an ADR scheme. However, if a dispute arises, and the trader has not considered using ADR, this could be looked at unfavourably by the courts, and the trader can be penalised.

It is important to note that not all ADR schemes are the same. Some offer conciliation and mediation, adjudication; or arbitration.

Note: Arbitration is binding on both parties, and if you’re unhappy with the decision, you will not be able to take the matter to court afterwards, or use an ombudsman service.

If you’ve bought goods or services online

An Online Dispute Resolution platform has been developed by the European Commission. This provides an online tool to make a complaint against a trader where goods or services have been bought online.  You should first try to resolve the dispute directly with the trader, but if you do not receive a response, or remain dissatisfied, you can submit an electronic complaint form found on the ODR platform. Your complaint will then be dealt with by an approved Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) provider.   

Step 4. Use an Ombudsman

Ombudsman schemes are a form of Alternative Dispute Resolution. Before you use an ombudsman scheme you usually need to have exhausted the trader’s official complaints procedure. You can ask the trader for a ‘letter of deadlock’ to show you’ve done all you can to resolve the complaint.

Remember, contacting an ombudsman scheme is a last resort, so do all you can to rectify the situation with the trader first.

Step 5. Use the Small Claims Court

The Small Claims Court is a low cost, quick and informal way of settling disputes.  It allows anyone to make a claim to recover money owed to them. The Small Claims Court is less formal than the higher courts and does not require the presence of solicitors or barristers.  

The types of claims that can be brought include claims for:

  • Faulty goods;
  • Unsatisfactory workmanship or services;
  • Debts; and
  • Damage to property.

In Northern Ireland the total amount of your claim must not exceed £3000 unless you clearly state that you intend to “abandon the excess” and agree to limit your claim to £3000, even though the amount of the claim is over that. 

Procedure and fees

The procedure is simple and involves completing a one-page form and paying a fee which is determined by the amount of the claim. 

You can get an application form online at www.courtsni.gov.uk or from your nearest:

  • Court office
  • Citizens Advice Bureau
  • Trading Standards Office
  • Local advice centre

You can also make a small claim online by visiting: www.courtsni.org.uk

Before you proceed

Ask the Enforcement of Judgments Office (EJO) to make a search for a person or trader (the respondent).  This will show if they already owe money against previous enforced judgments.  This will help you decide whether or not to proceed with Small Claims Court action, as it could mean even if you ‘win’ the case, you don’t get your money back immediately, if at all.  There is a small fee for this service. Contact the Enforcement of Judgments Office:

The Enforcement of Judgments Office
Laganside House
23-27 Oxford Street
Belfast
BT1 3LA

Phone: 028 9024 5081
Fax: 028 9031 3520
Email: PostRoomEJO@courtsni.gov.uk

How to complain checklist
  • Stay calm and be polite. This will help you to explain the issue clearly and you will be more likely to receive a favourable response.
  • Keep a note of who you spoke to, what was agreed and when.  If necessary, follow this up with an email or letter.
  • Check out your consumer rights. If in doubt, telephone Consumerline or The Consumer Council or look at our resources online.
  • Find out the trader’s official complaints handling policy if they have one, and see if they are a member of a trade association that may have a Code of Practice to follow.
  • Do not be fobbed off! If you are not getting the response you want, take it further and keep pushing.  Dishonest traders want you to give up.