Generally, the consumer guarantees only apply to the supply of goods and services to a consumer in ‘trade and commerce’. Remedies can be sought against the supplier and/or, in some cases, the manufacturer.
Therefore, it is necessary to define the terms ‘goods’, ‘services’, ‘consumer’, ‘supplier’, ‘manufacturer’ and ‘trade or commerce’.
The Australian Consumer Law (ACL) (s 2) defines ‘goods’ broadly. It expressly includes second-hand goods, computer software, animals, gas and electricity, and component parts. Consumer guarantees apply to new goods, second-hand goods and ‘seconds’.
The ACL (s 2) defines ‘services’ broadly to include any rights, benefits, privileges or facilities that are, or are to be, provided, granted or conferred in trade or commerce. This definition covers most contracts for the supply of services to consumers, including professional services (e.g. legal or accounting services).
However, the consumer guarantees do not apply to:
- professional services by qualified architects or engineers (s 61(4));
- services relating to the transportation or storage of goods for a business or contracts of insurance (s 63);
- financial services, which are regulated under the Australian Securities and Investments Commission Act 2001 (Cth) and the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth). However, the ACL does apply to ‘linked credit’.
A person acquires goods and/or services as a ‘consumer’ if:
- the amount payable for the goods or services is less than $100 000 (from 1 July 2021) (less than $40 000 before that date);
- the goods or services were of a kind ordinarily acquired for personal, domestic or household use or consumption; or
- the goods consisted of a vehicle or trailer acquired for use principally in the transport of goods on public roads (s 3(1) ACL).
Therefore, even goods acquired by a business may be covered if they cost less than $100 000.
However, a person is not a consumer if they acquired goods:
- for the purpose of re-supply; or
- for the purpose of using them up or transforming them in a process of production, manufacture, or repair (s 3(2) ACL).
If it is alleged that a person is a consumer in any proceeding, then it is presumed they are a consumer unless the contrary is established (s 3(10) ACL).
In relation to goods, ‘supply’ (including re-supply) includes selling, exchanging, leasing, hiring and purchasing by hire-purchase. In relation to services, ‘supply’ includes providing, granting and conferring. The terms ‘supplier’ and ‘supplied’ have corresponding meanings.
A person is the ‘manufacturer’ of the particular goods in question if they:
- actually manufactured the goods – to manufacture includes to grow, extract, produce, process and/or to assemble;
- claim to be the manufacturer of the goods;
- permit someone else to claim they are the manufacturer of the goods;
- permit their business name or one of its brand names to be applied to the goods (e.g. printed on a wrapper or woven on a label); or
- imported the goods if the actual manufacturer does not have an office in Australia (s 7(1) ACL).
Trade or commerce
A number of the ACL’s consumer guarantees only apply when goods are supplied ‘in trade or commerce’. Generally, this means that the supplier must be carrying on a business of supplying goods and services. Therefore, the consumer guarantees do not cover goods or services sold as one-offs by individuals. The guarantees relating to title, undisturbed possession, and undisclosed securities apply whether or not the goods are sold in trade or commerce.
Goods bought at auction
Many of the consumer guarantees do not apply to goods bought at a traditional auction where the auctioneer is an agent of the seller. The only consumer guarantees that apply to goods bought at a traditional auction are the guarantees relating to title, undisturbed possession and undisclosed securities.
Online auctions may be covered by the consumer guarantees if the website does not act as an agent of the seller. Check the terms and conditions, and seek legal advice before an auction.
Goods bought online or overseas
The consumer guarantees apply to goods bought from online businesses based in Australia. However, the guarantees may not apply to goods bought from overseas websites. It is important to check the terms and conditions of the contract. Even if they do apply, there may be practical difficulties in taking legal action and obtaining an effective remedy from an overseas-based seller.
‘No refunds’: Can guarantees be excluded or limited by contract?
A consumer’s rights under the consumer guarantees – that goods comply with their description, be of acceptable quality and are fit for their purpose – cannot be excluded from consumer contracts. A term of a contract is void (i.e. not enforceable) if it claims to exclude the operation of the consumer guarantees or exclude liability for a failure to comply with a consumer guarantee (s 64 ACL).
Signs, cash register receipts, websites, etc. that state ‘no refunds’ are misleading because they send the message that it is not possible to get a refund or other remedy even if there is a breach of a consumer guarantee. These notices try to stop consumers from claiming their statutory rights to the non-excludable consumer guarantees under the ACL.
Notices stating the following terms are unlawful:
- ‘no refund on sale items’;
- ‘exchange or credit note only for return of sale items’;
- ‘no refunds after 30 days’.
Similarly, insisting that a consumer return goods unopened or in the original packaging may be misleading as this is not a pre-condition to enforce the consumer guarantees.
However, notices that state that ‘no refunds will be given if you have simply changed your mind’ are acceptable because they do not try to negate the consumer guarantees.
Although, a term of a contract may limit a supplier’s liability to replace or repair faulty goods, or to pay to replace or repair the goods. However, this only applies if the goods are not ordinarily used for personal, domestic or household use or consumption (s 64A ACL). This means that any term in a contract that attempts to limit the remedies available for personal, domestic or household goods is void.
Also, displaying a ‘no refunds’ sign may be an offence under section 29(1)(m) of the ACL because it makes a false or misleading representation concerning the effect of a condition, warranty or guarantee.