Cancelling a sales contract
When we buy a product from a local shop, the law does not give us the automatic right to change our mind and return any unwanted products.
If the good is not defective but is not what we needed, or the gift is not suitable for the person who received it, unless we have a specific pre-sale agreement the law does not give us the right to demand a solution from the seller.
In such a situation, we are basically at the mercy of the seller and their after-sales policies. Luckily, most sellers are willing to exchange unwanted goods if these are returned with their packaging intact and if we show the fiscal receipt.
As consumers, when we are not 100 per cent sure of the product we’re about to buy, we should first check the shop’s exchange policies before proceeding with the sale.
Legally, the situation is different when we buy an item a distant means of communication from our home or from a location that is not the seller’s permanent place of business. When we purchase goods either online through or from a door-to-door seller, legally we have a period of time during which we can change our mind, return the goods purchased and obviously get a refund of our money. This time is known as the cooling-off period.
When we buy goods and services over the internet, by phone or by mail order, these purchases are subject to the Distance Selling Regulations. These regulations grant us a cooling-off period that gives us the right to cancel the sale within 15 days, without giving any reason and without incurring penalties.
When buying goods, the 15-day period starts from the delivery date. In case of services, this period starts from the signing of the contract. However, we may not have the right to cancel if we agree that the service starts before the 15 days expire.
When cancellation rights are exercised, the trader is obliged to reimburse a customer as soon as possible or within a maximum period of 30 days. We may be required to send back the goods and pay for transport costs. While in our possession, goods should be taken care of and packaged carefully prior to being sent back to the trader.
The legal right to cancellation does not apply in case of goods or services whereby the price depends on fluctuations in the markets that cannot be controlled by the trader.
Even goods made to the consumer’s specifications or that are clearly personalised are also excluded from the cooling-off period. However, this exception does not apply to upgrade options, such as going for alloy wheels when buying a car or opting for an add-on memory when ordering a PC.
Other exceptions include perishable goods like fresh food or flowers, newspapers, periodicals, magazines and unsealed audio or video recordings, or computer software, accommodation, transport, catering or leisure services arranged for a specific date or within a specific period.
The Distance Selling Regulations legally oblige sellers to inform their customers about their right of cancellation. When this is not done, the cooling-off period may be extended up to three months.
Buying from a door-to-door seller offers us a cooling-off period during which we can change our mind. In this case, however, the sale must exceed the amount of €46.
The Act regulating doorstep contracts stipulates that customers are informed in writing about their right to cancel the sales agreement. This period of time is 15 days from the date of the contract.
The law specifically requires the seller to attach a cancellation form with details about how to cancel the contract. Cancellation may, in fact, be made by signing the cancellation form and returning it to the door-to-door seller, but may also be made by word of mouth, and by means of telephone or fax.
Therefore, whenever a sales contract is concluded away from the trader’s normal business premises, consumers have a period of time during which they can change their mind and cancel the contract.
Consumers must be clearly informed about this right. It is up to the traders to prove that they have informed their customers about their cancellation rights.
Should we be denied the right to cancel a distance contract or a door-to-door sale, we can file a complaint with the Office for Consumer Affairs to make sure we get what we are legally entitled to.
Ms Vella is senior information officer, Office for Consumer Affairs, Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority.