The Competition & Markets Authority have issued an Open Letter to the Wedding Sector today (7/9/20)- you can read it verbatim here.
CMA open letter to the weddings sector
- The purpose of this letter is to help businesses in the weddings sector
understand how the CMA considers that consumer protection law applies to
the wedding contracts they have with consumers during the COVID-19
(coronavirus) pandemic. The crisis has highlighted the importance of
businesses ensuring their contracts meet the requirements of the law and that
they recognise consumers’ rights in the current situation.
- The CMA appreciates that we are in unprecedented times resulting in
significant challenges for both businesses and consumers. We understand
that many wedding businesses and consumers have agreed voluntary
arrangements to handle the effects on their contracts which work well for both
parties. The CMA is not seeking to disrupt these arrangements provided they
were fairly agreed and the business has not pressurised the consumer in any
way to accept the new arrangements at the expense of their rights under the
- The CMA has published a statement which sets out its views on how the law
operates in relation to contracts for wedding services which have been or will
be affected. We are encouraging businesses in the sector to familiarise
themselves with it and to take any necessary steps to ensure they comply
with consumer law. We are also encouraging consumers to read up on and
understand their rights.
- This letter, and the statement the CMA has published, does not introduce new
laws or rules for wedding businesses. Rather, they explain how, in the CMA’s
view, the current law applies in the present circumstances. They address
specific issues which have been drawn to the CMA’s attention by consumers
as being problematic.
- Where businesses do not comply with consumer law, they risk action by the
CMA or any other enforcer under consumer protection law, such as local
authority trading standards services. Consumers may also take action
themselves, through the courts if necessary, to challenge breaches of contract
and terms and practices which they think are unfair.
Consumer law and the weddings sector
- On 20 March 2020, the CMA established its COVID-19 Taskforce. Its purpose
is to monitor market developments in the wake of the pandemic, to identify
any commercial practices that adversely affect consumers, and to consider
appropriate responses to help businesses comply with the law and protect
- Through this work we received reports alleging some unfair practices by a
minority of businesses, including some in the weddings sector, mainly relating
to the cancellation of contracts and services in the context of coronavirus
lockdown restrictions. As a result, on April 30 2020 the CMA published a
statement on how, in its view, the law applies to consumer contracts, refunds
and cancellations and announced it would examine weddings as one of three
sectors of concern. The CMA has also recently updated that statement.
- Our investigation found the majority of wedding businesses were striving to
reach fair arrangements with consumers in very challenging circumstances. In
many cases, couples have reached new agreements to re-schedule their
wedding. However, we also found some points of concern, and other issues
on which we think businesses and consumers would benefit from more
detailed clarification. These are explained in more detail in the weddings
statement we have published.
- In summary, the issues are:
(i) wedding businesses refusing to offer or give appropriate refunds where
weddings are (or were) prevented from taking place by lockdown laws;
(ii) uncertainty about weddings that are affected by legal restrictions and
government guidance as lockdown laws are eased; and
(iii) businesses seeking to rely on unfair contract terms.
(i) Wedding businesses refusing to offer or issue appropriate refunds
where weddings are (or were) prevented from taking place by lockdown
10.In the earlier part of the pandemic the government put in place lockdown laws
which required wedding venues to close and prohibited people leaving home
and attending gatherings. Those laws prevented weddings taking place.
Governments or local authorities may also introduce local lockdown rules at a
later date that have similar effects.
11.Where lockdown laws mean (or meant) a wedding cannot go ahead on the
date agreed, the contract between a wedding business and a consumer is
likely to come to an end. It will be what the law describes as ‘frustrated.’
12.Where lockdown laws prevent (or prevented) a wedding from going ahead as
agreed, the consumer should be offered a refund. The CMA’s view is that the
starting point under the law is that this should be a full refund, and a refund
would be due even where the consumer has paid what the business says are
13.Wedding businesses may be able to withhold some amounts from a refund
where they have already provided some services to the consumer and
incurred some costs before the wedding was prevented from taking place.
Our statement sets out the sums that, in the CMA’s view, a business may or
may not retain. In summary, we think it may be fair for a business to retain:
(i) a sum for services or products it has already provided to the consumer
(such as bespoke goods made for them) which have an ongoing value
that the consumer will continue to benefit from even after the contract
has ended; and
(ii) a limited contribution to other costs which have a sufficiently direct
connection with the contract, are incurred before the wedding was
prevented from taking place and have gone to waste (such costs may
include the buying of food and flowers for the wedding which cannot
There are, in the CMA’s view, likely to be few if any sums which fall into the
first category and only limited amounts falling within the second.
14.There are also costs which the CMA considers that the business should not
recover by withholding sums from refunds. These include:
(i) costs which produce ongoing, reusable benefits to the business (such
as general refurbishment and maintenance costs for wedding venues),
as the business will get value from these in other contracts for
weddings that can go ahead;
(ii) fixed costs of doing business (such as general staff costs (other than
those identified as potentially recoverable above), general IT system
costs, and other general business costs (like utility costs, bank charges
and business rates)) as these are costs incurred in any event whether
or not a wedding contract was entered into;
(iii) costs which can be recovered from other sources (such as the furlough
scheme or other Government support schemes); and
(iv)costs of administering a refund.
(ii) Weddings affected by legal restrictions and government guidance
15.As circumstances surrounding the coronavirus have changed, the government
has sought to ease lockdown laws and replaced parts of them with guidance
about what people and businesses should do. These changes have removed
or modified some of the legal restrictions requiring business to remain closed
and prohibiting individuals from leaving home and attending gatherings.
Governments have also issued guidance about where and how wedding
ceremonies and receptions can safely take place. The position is likely to
evolve further as restrictions change in response to the coronavirus.
16.In these circumstances, wedding businesses have to assess whether and
how the wedding can take place and the effect on the wedding contract.
Where a key element of the contract (such as venue, catering service or the
reception and entertainment) cannot safely and lawfully be provided as
agreed, the more likely the contract is to be frustrated. In that case, the
consumer would be due a refund as set out above.
17.The same is likely to be true if the number of guests who can safely and
lawfully attend the wedding and/or reception is radically different to that
agreed in the contract. The number of guests is likely to be another key part of
the wedding contract and the fewer who can attend compared to the number
agreed, the more likely it is that the contract is frustrated and the consumer is
due a refund of the kind described.
18.However, where there is a more limited impact, for example where the
wedding can go ahead at the agreed venue, with catering and a reception
mainly as agreed, for a substantial majority of the agreed number of guests,
there is less likelihood that the contract is frustrated. The consumer may still
be due a pro-rata price reduction for the parts of the wedding that are not
provided, or provided in a different way to that agreed, but they are less likely
to be due a fuller refund as set out above. This is explained further in the
second part of our weddings statement.
(iii) Unfair Contract terms
19.We have seen examples of wedding businesses using what, in the CMA’s
view, are unfair contract terms to try to deny consumers refunds. These
include terms which seek to:
(i) avoid or limit the business’s liability to refund consumers where the
wedding cannot go ahead (sometimes called ‘force majeure’ clauses);
(ii) allow the business to change the services it provides after the contract
has been agreed (often called ‘variation clauses’); and
(iii) impose excessive cancellation charges on consumers (‘unfair
Where wedding businesses use terms that are unfair, those terms are
unenforceable. They would not have the effects the business intends, and the
business cannot rely on the term at all.
20.In the CMA’s view, force majeure clauses (or similar terms which seek to
limit a wedding business’ liability to refund consumers whose weddings
cannot go ahead) are likely to be unfair if they seek to prevent consumers
obtaining refunds as set out above.
21.Variation clauses are also at risk of being unfair if they have the effect of
giving the business a ‘blank cheque’ allowing it to change important parts of
the contract to suit itself. In the CMA’s view, such terms are more likely to be
fair if they are limited so that they only allow the business to change what it
provides in a narrow range of circumstances genuinely outside its control
(such as changes in the law); give the consumer the right to advance notice of
any proposed changes; and give the consumer the option of a pro-rata price
reduction or (where the change is significant) to cancel the contract and get a
22.Where a consumer cancels they should not face disproportionately high or
extra charges for ending the contract. In practice, this means the consumer
should not be liable for anything more than a proportion of the price of the
wedding, based on costs which can be legitimately recovered. Terms saying
no refund is available in any circumstances, or that a consumer must pay in
full if they cancel, without taking into account any savings to the business for
not having to provide the wedding are likely, in the CMA’s view, to be unfair
23.We strongly encourage businesses to examine their contracts with wedding
couples and ensure they comply with consumer law. For further information,
please see our guides on consumer protection law or contact your local
trading standards service. If you need to redraft your contracts in light of this
letter and the statement we have published, please also refer to our unfair
contract terms guidance and in particular our guidance for businesses on how
to write fair contracts.
Director – Consumer Group
- In summary, the issues are:
To find out more please take a look at the Government site links below.