The British legal system is one of the oldest and most advanced in the world – designed to protect the individual and their freedom at every turn. Whether you're in the office, at home, shopping, or travelling overseas, there's a raft of legislation engineered to look after you – so much legislation, in fact, that most people understandably only have a grasp over the smallest part of it.
But knowing your basic rights – and how to stand up for them – is well worth the effort, and can help save you a lot of unnecessary expense and unhappiness.
Which?, the consumer group, launched a new campaign to raise awareness of shoppers' statutory rights this week, warning that the majority of people do not even understand what they are entitled to when they buy something on the high street.
Peter McCarthy, a senior lawyer at Which?, says one of the biggest areas of misunderstanding is returns. While 75 per cent of people under the age of 35 believe that they are entitled to a refund if they change their mind about a purchase or receive an unwanted gift – the reality is that retailers are only obliged to refund or offer an exchange if the product is faulty. Many will provide refunds or exchanges out of goodwill.
However, if something you've bought is faulty, then you're much better protected than you might think.
Although many shops invest plenty of time in trying to sell you an extended warranty when you buy something, retailers are, at the very least, obliged to pay for repairs if something they sold you breaks down within the first six months. "If a product is found to be faulty within the first six months after purchase, the law will assume that the goods were sold to you in that state," says McCarthy. "But after six months the burden switches to the consumer."
Even after six months, however, you may have a case for forcing the retailer to pay for repairs, or to replace a product. "If you bought a car and its engine packed up after 18 months, a judge would probably say that it was reasonable for you to not expect that to happen so quickly," continues McCarthy.
"It's about how much you've spent, and how long you could reasonably expect for the product not to go wrong. If I'd spent £2,000 on an electric product, like a DVD player, I'd be annoyed if that wasn't working after three years. I would go back to the retailer and say that I expected it repaired free of charge.
You will also receive an extra degree of protection if you buy something on your credit card. Under section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act, your credit card provider must refund you if something you paid for with your card is found to be faulty. So if you're having trouble persuading the shop that sold you the product to act reasonably, it may be worth giving your credit card company a call.
Alas, if you paid by cash or credit card, and the shop refuses to repair your goods (or provide a refund if it's been less than four weeks since purchase), then your only option is to take them to the small claims court (more of which below) – which deals with any claims of up to £5,000.
The main problems people have at home are with unreliable tradesmen and discourteous neighbours. Fortunately, just as when you buy a product in the shops, you have a right to expect and receive good quality work at home – and, if a tradesman leaves a job half done, or does a shoddy piece of work, the law is on your side.
Although it's worth checking whether your tradesman is a member of a trade body – which may offer an arbitration service for disputes – in the majority of cases, it's necessary to turn to the small claims court. While this can seem daunting, it's not as difficult a process as you might think.
Before you head to the court, however, it's important to give the individual or company a good opportunity to put things right. "The first step is to write them a letter, saying that you'll give them the opportunity to complete the job," says McCarthy. "If they don't respond, then get a quote done by a third party for completion of the work, and send it to them, saying this is how much it would cost them if you took them to court."
If you get no joy, then the next step is to file your claim at the small claims court. You can do this online at www.moneyclaim.gov.uk, and it's relatively inexpensive. Fees are between £50 and £120 depending on the size of your claim, but you should get this back if you win. The process is designed to be relatively simple, and you should have no need for a solicitor. In many cases, claims are not contested, but if they are, you may have to attend a hearing, and even provide witnesses. The downside of the small claims court is that it is relatively slow, and tends to take between four and nine months for cases to be heard.
If it's a problem with your neighbour you're having, you have much better protection if you're a leaseholder – rather than a freeholder – as you're likely to have a contract with your landlord entitling you to live comfortably in your property.
If neighbours are being excessively noisy, or encroaching on your land, you should be able to approach the leaseholder to sort it out. Joanne Lezemore, a lawyer at Which?, advises that you should keep a diary of any problems. "While some things can sound petty in isolation, if they're happening every day, then it can be a real problem," she says.
When it comes to noise disputes, Lezemore says you can approach your local authority, whether you are a leaseholder or not.
If you are unable to sort out disputes, the last resort is to apply for a court injunction to force them to comply with your wishes. However, this can be costly and is only worthwhile in extreme cases.
If you're travelling abroad, there's tons of legislation to protect you. Frances Tuke of the Association of British Travel Agents (Abta), says: " If you're on a package holiday, you have got many rights – more than if you'd booked directly. However, although they're still very popular, around 60 per cent of people are not doing packages anymore. So our concern is that a lot of people are not getting the rights they deserve when they're on holiday.
"If you book with an Abta member, you have even more rights. Our members sign up to a code of conduct, and we have an arbitration service if things go wrong. The judgments are legally binding, and it's a lower-cost and much quicker option than going through the small claims court."
The Air Transport Users Council also offers protection for people when they fly. If you're denied boarding, for example, because your flight is overbooked, you must be paid a minimum of ¿125 (£84.50) in compensation, as well as being offered another flight as soon as possible.
If your baggage goes missing for more than 21 days, it is classified as lost, and you must also be compensated.
Finally, if your flight is delayed – even for as little as two hours – you are entitled to a couple of free phone calls and some refreshments (as long as your flight is leaving from within the EU). And if it is delayed overnight, you're entitled to hotel accommodation.
For more information, visit www.caa.co.uk.
Employment law is a big enough topic for an article in itself. As a starting point, however, it's important to try and get a contract when you start work, or at least a copy of the terms and conditions of your employment. Under EU law, your employer is not allowed to make you work more than 48 hours a week, and you must be given at least four weeks of paid holiday a year.
Hannah Read, the senior employment rights officer at the TUC, says that one common misconception is that you're entitled to sick pay if you take a day off for being ill. In fact, your employer is within their right to stop your wages during the first four days of absence, and after that, they are only obliged to pay you £72.55 a week.
All new mothers are entitled to 52 weeks' maternity leave, although you're only entitled to pay for the first 39 weeks. Statutory maternity pay is 90 per cent of your salary for the first six weeks, and then £112.75 a week for the next 33 weeks. Fathers are entitled to two weeks' paternity leave, but employers are only obliged to pay them at the statutory rate of £112.75 a week.
The other main right you have in the workplace is not to be discriminated against – on the grounds of sex, age, race, sexual orientation or disability.
If you have a dispute with your employer, which you can't settle through discussion, you can take them to an employment tribunal. However, there is no legal aid here, and you will probably need a lawyer to represent you. But Read says that if you are a member of a union, they will normally provide you representation. Compensation for unfair dismissal is capped just below £70,000, while compensation in discrimination cases is unlimited.
'My credit card came to the rescue'
Mandy Mitchelmore, from Maidstone in Kent, found herself faced with a £1,200 bill after her four-year-old Ford Focus suddenly packed up.
Prograde, a firm of car mechanics based in south-east London, said the problems were so serious that the car needed a new engine – so Mandy reluctantly paid up.
However, a few weeks later, the car ran into trouble again, suddenly stopping on the M1, and nearly causing a nasty accident.
After taking the car back to the garage, Mandy was told she'd need yet another new engine – in spite of having driven only 3,000 miles since the last change. The bill was for another £1,200, and keen to get the car back on the road, she paid up.
Fortunately, however, Mandy took the time to commission an independent expert to examine the car before she agreed to the second new engine being fitted. The report confirmed that the first replacement engine had not been up to scratch.
After contacting Which? legal services for help, she was advised to make a claim against Prograde, and started by writing several letters. After not hearing back from them, however, she discovered that they had gone bust.
But Which? advised her that because she had paid by credit card, she was covered under section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act – which says suppliers and credit card companies are jointly liable.
As a result, Mandy pursued a claim against MBNA, for the cost of the second replacement engine, as well as for the costs of the independent report, and the expense of hiring a replacement car while hers was being repaired.
MBNA eventually paid up more than £1,700.Reuse content