Whine and dine

22nd February 2008 at 00:00
British people are notoriously reluctant to complain, but sometimes you need to become the fly in the ointment - especially if you find one in your soup, says Ruth McGuire

It might seem unlikely. You buy a hot cup of coffee from a fast food outlet, you spill it and burn yourself and then take out a lawsuit of nearly pound;1.5m against the company. Sounds crazy, but it happened in 1992 when Stella Liebeck, from New Mexico in the US, sued McDonald's for injuries and expenses she incurred after the coffee cup she held between her knees in a car spilled on her lap.

Few of us would probably take a complaint that far. It takes courage to complain, but in the end it's all down to technique - knowing when to complain and how. In the book 450 Legal Problems Solved, Which?, the consumer organisation, provides a 10-point action list for complaining, as follows:

- Act quickly

- Know your rights

- Target your complaint

- Keep a record of your action

- Follow up in writing

- Make sure your letter keeps to the point

- Get evidence

- Be persistent and don't be fobbed off

- Be reasonable

- Follow the right complaints procedure.

Before you complain, ask yourself whether it's worth it. For some people it's a question of principle; for others it's all about the money. If you decide to go ahead, you need to know your rights.

For example, goods purchased should, under the Sale of Goods Act 1979, be "of satisfactory quality", "fit for the purpose" and "as described".

If you discover a fault that was not present or obvious at the time of sale, you are legally entitled to a full refund, compensation, repair, replacement or a price reduction. If you change your mind about the items, clothes for example, some stores only offer a credit note or exchange, though others will offer a refund as a gesture of goodwill. No retailer is legally bound to refund you for goods that you just don't like.

The Sale of Goods Act applies to any goods or parts fitted as part of a contract for services. For the actual services, however, your rights are covered by The Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982, and under this law you are entitled to expect that work carried out by a trader is done with reasonable care and skill, in a reasonable time (if there is no specific time agreed) and for a reasonable charge (if no fixed price was set in advance).

The internet has made it easier to access help with complaints. If you go to the Trading Standards website (www.tradingstandards.gov.uk), you can download advice leaflets about how to complain as well as links to regulators, trade bodies and consumer organisations such as the Air Transports Council and the Consumer Support Network.

The Which? website (www.which.co.uk) offers a step by step guide to complaining, including templates for letters about faulty products, poor workmanship and so on. www.howtocomplain.com also has templates, plus a facility that allows you to complain directly to a huge list of private sector companies and public sector organisations.

With any type of complaint, the aim should always be to reach resolution. You should avoid court proceedings unless it is absolutely necessary, as they are costly in terms of money, energy and stress. If you must pursue legal action, choose a lawyer who comes with a recommendation from someone you trust.

The same principles about successful complaining apply at work, though it is much more difficult to complain to people you know or about people you work with.

Graham Clewer, a science teacher and secretary of the Croydon Association of the NASUWT, the teachers' trade union, has spent the past 20 years complaining on behalf of other teachers.

"My starting position is always 'we have a problem, can we find a solution?'" He thinks this strategy has saved a few careers

450 Legal Problems Solved by Keith Richards can be ordered from www.which.co.ukbooks or from bookshops.

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