Meals that leave a bad taste

We have all done it, writes Steve Lodge. You are disappointed by a meal but you still pay up, including that "optional" service charge, even if the service was as bad as the food.

With meals that you are not happy with consumers have wide-ranging rights to deduct service charges that are added to bills. And if you complain and something is not put right, it is also legitimate to deduct an amount from the main bill for whatever it was you were unhappy with, says the Consumers' Association. Restaurants have no right to make you pay your bill in full there and then if you are unhappy.

And since disputes of this kind are matters of civil (rather than criminal) law, if they get to the point where the police are involved they will simply require you to leave your name and address with the restaurant.

With restaurants, pubs and the like you are legally entitled to have food prepared and served with "reasonable skill and care", says Jackie Hewitt, a Consumers' Association lawyer. In the first instance you should give the establishment a chance to put matters right, but if your complaint remains unresolved you can then deduct the disputed items from the bill. The restaurant could then take legal action. If, instead, you feel intimidated into paying up you should write "paid under protest" on your cheque or credit card slip and write to the restaurant's head office or to its proprietor.

Consumers have only themselves to blame if they pay service charges that are described as optional; but they are also legally entitled to refuse to pay if they think the service has not been satisfactory or if there is no indication a service charge would be added.

Many people will not exercise their rights because they do not know them. For others embarrassment may be almost as important. But Ms Hewitt says: "The rights are there and people ought to use them. It's very English not to complain."

In a restaurant, for example, one way of easing embarrassment might be to go to see the manager, although being bold enough to complain in front of other customers might be more likely to yield results.