On 4 January 1995, the Sale and Supply of Goods Act becomes law. It will give buyers greater opportunities to reject goods they are unhappy with. The definition in the present Sale of Goods Act (1979), which refers to goods being of "merchantable quality" will be replaced with a new test of "satisfactory quality".
This means consumers will be able to reject goods which, although technically fit for the purpose, are not of a standard that a reasonable person would consider satisfactory.
The present law does not give consumers the right to reject the goods, merely the opportunity to claim damages for the difference between the value of the goods in their damaged and undamaged state.
This interpretation stems from a 1984 court case in which it was held that a man who had bought a car which broke down after 27 days was deemed to have accepted it, despite having driven only 140 miles. The court rejected his claim that he had the right to a full refund .
The new Act also gives consumers longer to inspect goods before they can be deemed to have accepted them. And consumers who order goods to be delivered which have not previously been inspected - such as mail-order goods - cannot be held to have accepted them until they have had a reasonable time to inspect them. A similiar right already exists in the Sale of Goods Act 1979, but its right to inspect does not apply where consumers have "intimated" acceptance or have waived the right.
The new Act provides that consumers cannot be deemed to have intimated acceptance until they have had reasonable opportunity to inspect the goods.
In addition, buyers will have the right to keep those goods they are happy with while rejecting those that are faulty. The Sale of Goods Act (1979) only allows a partial rejection of goods if the contract is severable - usually only when goods are delivered and paid for by instalments.
Meriel Thorne, the parliamentary officer with the Consumers Association, said: "The Consumer Association welcomes the Act. lt has recommended reform for over 15 years. "
Stephen Sidkin, a commercial law partner with City Law Fox Williams, agrees: "The Act undoubtedly strengthens the rights of all buyers, whether consumers or trade. Because of the lack of publicity given to the introduction of this legislation by the Department of Trade and Industry, the only problem is that sellers may seek to deny the existence of these new rights for buyers."
Further strengthening of consumer rights is promised by the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations, which are due to come into force on 1 January 1995. After that date, any term in a set of standard conditions which is "unfair" will be unenforceable. The regulations contain guidance as to what may be considered unfair.