WEDDING venues are potentially breaking the law by exploiting 'unfair' terms and conditions to avoid refunding couples for cancellations due to the coronavirus crisis, a new study says.

Which? the consumer organisation has reported 12 UK wedding venues and organisers to the Competition and Markets Authority raising concerns about couples failing to get refunds.

The organisation has taken action after identifying that 20 out of 25 couples they have been in contact with said their wedding venue refused to offer a refund or made the process of obtaining their money back difficult.

Which? believes these complaints are just the tip of the iceberg and there could be an industry-wide issue when it comes to refunds and cancellations.

Aimi Gold and Ali Miles from Glasgow are among those who struggled to get their money back after their plans for a wedding in Scotland were thrown into chaos.

READ MORE:Three-fold increase in Scots seeking advice on refund rights

Their case was highlighted by Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) following concerns over getting refunds for cancelled flights, holidays and events during the health crisis.

HeraldScotland:

Cases brought to CAS include a Glasgow couple who are waiting for around £15,000 in refunds after their wedding was cancelled.

Ms Gold and Mr Miles had planned to get married earlier this year, but the plans were thrown into chaos by the pandemic.

They were of pocket by about £15,000 and had facing obstacles from various companies involved in the holiday.

Among those playing hardball were the venue and flight operators for the honeymoon, stag do and hen nights.

Ms Gold said: “We have had various emails from the airlines pressuring us to take credit notes rather than refunds. We have eventually managed to get in the refund queue, but it should not have taken so much time and stress.”

Of frustrated couples who contacted Which? 20 said they had not been offered like-for-like dates or offered a refund if the price for the postponed date was cheaper. Some 17 said their venue has charged a fee to rebook or cancel their wedding and 15 couples said their venue has introduced new terms and conditions.

The consumer organisation analysed the contracts of eight venues that had potentially unfair terms and conditions and heard from a further four couples whose venues were potentially breaching the regulator's guidance on refunds and cancellations, which was issued last month after the CMA announced it was investigating this sector.

The CMA also outlined its expectations for businesses, in most cases, to refund customers if they cancel or cannot receive a service due to Government public health measures, including any non-refundable deposits or advance payments. It expects businesses to waive any admin fees for processing refunds too.

HeraldScotland:

Adam French, Which? consumer rights expert said: “We believe there may be a serious, industry-wide issue with wedding venues ducking their legal responsibilities on refunds and cancellations by using potentially unfair terms and conditions.

“While many wedding venues may have been financially impacted by the coronavirus crisis, couples who are likely to be devastated at having to cancel their big day should not be forced to bear the cost.

“The CMA is currently investigating this sector and must be ready to take firm action against venues found to be breaching consumer law so customers have some prospect of getting their money back.”

Which? received most complaints about the Bijou Weddings group, a family-run wedding venue chain. Some of the couples that had booked with Bijou said the venue told them just before the government announced a ban on weddings that not only had their weddings been cancelled, but that they were liable to pay a cancellation fee of 80 per cent of the total cost of their weddings.

In May, a number of Bijou customers reported new contract terms had appeared on the website, stating that couples could postpone if their original date was not possible due to the coronavirus pandemic, but with no reference to a refund.

"Which? said this would be in breach of the CMA’s guidance that states rebooking should not be offered instead of refunds.

Bijou told Which? the new contract uploaded to the site was a blank template and appeared due to an IT error. Which? has seen the new terms that appeared on the site after some couples were able to take a screenshot of the contract before it was removed.

The consumer organisation said that by law, new terms and conditions must be fair and can be unenforceable if they give too much power to the business providing the service.

Which? analysed the new and pre-existing terms and conditions from a number of wedding venues, including Bijou, and found some that could be seen as unfair and unenforceable as they significantly reduce customers’ rights.

Which? has also heard from Bijou customers who said the venue suggested they claim with their insurer to avoid refunding customers for cancelled weddings.

The UK wedding market is estimated to be worth around £10bn ($12.5bn) annually and many couples hope to recoup money spent on ceremonies through insurance.

However, many insurers in the market are refusing to payout on claims.

Which? says insurers had stopped selling new policies by mid-March following a surge in demand. However, those with existing policies have found themselves caught between venues that refuse to pay out and insurers with unclear policies or "exclusion clauses" which mean they do not have to pay out either.

One bride-to-be booked her wedding at Bijou’s Botleys Mansion venue. When the venue cancelled and asked for an 80% cancellation fee, it suggested she claimed the money back from her insurer and used the money to rebook. Most insurers have refused to pay out for cancellations, so Claudia risked being left out of pocket and with no idea if or when she would be able to get her money back.

Scot Christopher McCraig, 28, said last month he spent an estimated 10 hours trying to reach someone at one insurance company on the phone. Several times, he was cut off after waiting for more than an hour on hold.

On one occasion, Mr McCraig was also forced to listen to a hold recording about “which is most popular outfit that turn the other sex on.”

“Imagine hearing that repeatedly on speaker whilst trying to home-school my two young kids,” he said.

When he did finally reach someone, Mr McCraig said his claim was denied.

The Bijou Group said: “We have been doing everything we can to navigate these very challenging times with as little disruption as possible to our couples and their big days, which we have been working on planning with them for up to two years, incurring significant costs along the way.

"The huge majority are very appreciative and understanding but there is unfortunately a very small minority (around eight or nine) who are not entirely satisfied and have taken to press, social media, review sites, solicitors and so on in an attempt to get what they want.

"We are considering every case, at length, individually to understand what we can do to help but must also be consistent and fair.”

It added: “Without cancellation charges like these, the industry would not be able to offer to consumers what it does at the prices that it does. The cancellation charges protect the venues, and there is wedding insurance to protect the couple.

“We did not cancel any weddings voluntarily – it was imposed on us - and this is exactly the situation for which wedding insurance exists.” It said Thursday-Sunday postponement dates were one of many options offered to couples.