Q. Earlier this year my son approached Utility Warehouse to reduce his utility outgoings. He signed up to take gas, electricity, broadband and telephone. Virgin had provided broadband via fibre optic cable, but Utility Warehouse offered him a connection via a telephone line as a cheaper alternative.
My son lives in a three-storey dwelling with his desktop computer and equipment on the second floor - none of which was discussed when he signed up. The engineer installed the telephone line and router on the ground floor, but there was no discussion of the suitability of the location. My son was unable to get broadband working with this set-up. Utility Warehouse advised him to have an extension socket installed by BT to get the system working, at a cost of £120. This was unaffordable, so my son has now reverted to Virgin and the fibre optic set-up.
One of the attractions of Utility Warehouse was their promise that there would be no minimum contract. But on receiving his August statement my son was horrified to see that he had been charged an early termination fee for the phone line. I've waded through the 24 pages of terms and conditions and found a clause relating to early termination, but I cannot understand how that squares with no minimum contract. I've complained to Utility Warehouse, but not had a response. I've paid the bill less the early termination fee, but now my son is being threatened by debt collectors. LH, West Midlands.
A. Utility Warehouse provides a significantly different version of events. "When [the reader's son] signed up online it was made clear that, since he was with Virgin, we were going to have to put a new line in," says its spokesman. "For customers who take four services or more - whom we call 'Gold Status' - we greatly discount the cost of that new line to £24, either in one instalment on the first bill, or over 24 months. This is [stated] in the online sign-up. It also mentions the fact that there is, in this case, a contract - which is reasonable, given we are heavily subsidising the cost of a new line, as well as providing a free router. [The reader's son] chose to spread the cost over 24 months.
"As a result, when he chose to cancel after five months, there was a fee applied to cover the costs we had incurred. This should not have come as a surprise – not only is it in our terms and conditions, but it is mentioned clearly before someone signs up. Our customer service advisors told him what the fee would be before he proceeded with the cancellation."
Utility Warehouse says that your son accepted these cancellation costs and made no objection when they were explained to him. It adds that your son agreed initially that the master socket would be located downstairs and that he moved music equipment next to this.
The location only became a problem when neighbours complained about the noise. Phone conversations between your son and the call operatives have been listened to and your son agreed to pay the cost of the phone line rewiring – and he was advised that a local electrician may be able to do the work for less than the cost charged by BT. In view of this explanation, you have agreed to pay the early termination fee on behalf of your son.
Where did my stamp duty disappear to?
Q. I bought an apartment, using a firm of solicitors for the conveyancing called Abode Solicitors, who also traded as Arc Property Solicitors and Action Conveyancing. They owe me £12,500, as they did nothing. The Land Registry tells me that a search was conducted, but the transaction was not registered. I paid the stamp duty, but this was not paid to HMRC. I am concerned that as a result I will be fined by HMRC. I was taken in by glowing testimonials. VB, London.
A. The Solicitors Regulation Authority intervened with Abode Solicitors earlier this month, citing the need to protect client money and failures by the firm to comply with solicitors' accounting rules. Stephensons Solicitors is dealing with client money that was held by the firm. In a statement, the SRA said: "The SRA has appointed an agent to deal with all matters currently held by Abode Solicitors. The agent will assess all on-going matters and deal with those of greatest need first. The SRA's archive team will take control of all documents held by the firm. Clients of Abode Solicitors do not need to contact either the agent or the SRA at this time."
This was a large business, operating under the three brand names of Abode, Arc and Action Conveyancing. It had several offices and many clients will be affected by its closure. The SRA says that compensation is available to clients of the firm who have suffered a financial loss, but that it is currently reviewing "hundreds" of client files. You have already contacted the SRA about your situation and you should continue to liaise with it. We contacted HMRC about the unpaid stamp duty.
Its spokesman says: "In law, the purchaser is liable to make an SDLT [stamp duty land tax] return and pay the tax, even if he or she employs a solicitor for this purpose. We contact people if we find a discrepancy between the tax that we think should have been paid on a house purchase and what has in fact been paid. We understand this would come as a shock because the purchaser would naturally expect the money to be sent to HMRC by the solicitor.
"In these circumstances, clearly the solicitor involved should make good any shortfall. If that doesn't happen, taxpayers should contact the Solicitors Regulation Authority to seek compensation for the money that should have been paid. We will work closely with any purchaser in these circumstances. There won't be a fine, provided that the return has been sent in on time, but interest is charged automatically on tax paid late."
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