Tony Hetherington is Financial Mail on Sunday’s ace investigator, fighting readers corners, revealing the truth that lies behind closed doors and winning victories for those who have been left out-of-pocket. Find out how to contact him below.
Ms A.H. writes: My partner and I booked a wedding reception for 60 guests at Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park, for July 11.
The Government restrictions to tackle the pandemic meant this could not go ahead as planned. Pembroke Lodge set a cut-off date for us to decide whether to go ahead, but could not say whether they could provide our wedding at all, let alone how many guests would be allowed.
We could not continue, so we asked for a refund of our £1,750 deposit, but they refused.
Cancelled: But Pembroke Lodge in London’s Richmond Park would not offer a refund of Ms H’s £1,750 deposit
You told me that your wedding had been planned for more than a year, with one of the attractions that the reception would be in one of the Royal Parks, in South West London.
As lockdown restrictions were announced and changed, you were pressed for a decision by June 13, though the management at Pembroke Lodge could still not say what would be allowed or how many guests you could have.
As your church ceremony was still allowed, you went ahead with that but cancelled the reception and requested a refund. You were offered instead a choice that included postponing your reception until a new date at some point in the future, with Pembroke Lodge adding that its terms and conditions allow no refunds.
However, when I looked into those terms and conditions, they showed that you and your partner had made the booking, but they did not show who was on the other end of the contract, nor did the wedding firm’s 31-page brochure, or its very attractive website.
Pembroke Lodge is just a building, not a person or a company. It turned out that the wedding business is operated by a company called The Hearsum Family Limited, headed by chartered surveyor Daniel Hearsum. So I asked him why he expected payment and confirmation of the booking in June, when from his side, he was unable to say whether he could provide any reception at all, and clearly could not offer a reception of the size you had booked a year earlier. He explained that he had withdrawn the original deadline for your decision, but regarded his terms and conditions as a binding contract. I could quibble over this, as the contract fails to name his company, but the more important bottom line was that he could not provide the 60-person reception you had booked. This was not his fault, but nor was it yours, of course.
And while this toing and froing was going on, the Competition and Markets Authority had been doing sterling work on the subject of wedding bookings, using a 1943 law about ‘frustrated contracts’ which could not be carried out – in this case, because lockdown laws made the booking impossible.
The CMA investigated one particular wedding firm and allowed it to hang on to certain expenses it had already had to meet, but emphasised that the starting point was that couples were entitled to a full refund, even if the terms and conditions said otherwise.
This was an impressively fast and fair piece of work from the CMA, but unfortunately a different wedding firm then told lots of others that the CMA had set a ‘benchmark’ allowing them to keep 37 per cent of the original full price, minus an allowance for the time since lockdown began. And Daniel Hearsum cheerfully told me that this meant he could keep the whole £1,750, though he added that ‘we will offer a goodwill refund of £750, if that is an amicable end of the matter’.
The CMA was startled to be told by me that its boss Andrea Coscelli had supposedly set a firm benchmark allowing wedding firms to keep a fixed percentage of deposits without having to provide a reception. This was completely false, officials insisted, adding, ‘This is not a benchmark. We have never used the word benchmark, and there is no benchmark.’
In a nutshell, wedding firms have to justify keeping a single penny, by showing they have forked out – for example – for such things as flowers, cars, catering staff, food, and so on. Pembroke Lodge management have come up with no figures, saying only that, ‘Between June 2019 and June 2020 we worked hard to prepare and plan for A’s wedding.’
They claim: ‘We offered to bear 80 per cent (some £6,500) of the cancellation losses.’ But there is no breakdown of this sum, and nothing to show what Pembroke Lodge might or might not already have spent.
The outcome is that there is on the table a ‘goodwill refund’ of £750, leaving you £1,000 out of pocket. Only you can decide whether to make the best of a bad job. But I am sure other couples will form their own view, and I suspect it will be closer to the CMA’s wise starting point that if a company can’t do the job, then the customer is entitled to a full refund.
Will Sainsbury’s refund my card bill?
E.B. writes: Please help me. I am 80 years old and in poor health, and I cannot get Sainsbury’s Bank to give me a refund.
The amounts in dispute are £375 and £762, both paid to Fleetway Travel on my Sainsbury’s card.
In each case, Sainsbury’s has told me it has asked Fleetway for a refund, which implies that Sainsbury’s is unaware that Fleetway has ceased trading.
Money back: Mr B has now received his refund, and a gesture of goodwill as it did take a little longer than usual
Fleetway Travel fell into administration in July.
It did have cash in the bank and other assets worth several million pounds in total, but nothing like enough to pay off the roughly £11 million owed to ordinary customers.
When a business ceases trading, card issuers have to go through a chargeback process. Under rules set by Mastercard, the business is allowed 45 days to object to the claim, though Sainsbury’s did in fact go past this.
A spokesman told me you had been reassured that you would not be liable for the money – or for any interest charged – and added: ‘Mr B has now received his refund, and a gesture of goodwill as it did take a little longer than usual.’
If you believe you are the victim of financial wrongdoing, write to Tony Hetherington at Financial Mail, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TS or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Because of the high volume of enquiries, personal replies cannot be given. Please send only copies of original documents, which we regret cannot be returned.