It's something Nigel Phillips wished he’d done when he went to visit the Glamorgan Health and Racquet Club recently.
He told X-Ray after walking around the gym, pool and courts he was really impressed: “A friend at work he was a member there and he just encouraged me to come along and have a look, he got a free pass for me.
“It was very nice it looked very family orientated very nice.”
And he said the price wasn’t bad: “I think it worked out to be about £12 a week. He told me that would be the gym and swimming pool and that my children could go for free.
“You usually might feel approached, hard hit on for the hard sell, but not in this case [the salesman] was quite friendly and quite chatty just like one of the lads.”
Nigel says he was told the contract would last for two years but he could cancel at anytime if he gave three months notice. So he signed on the dotted line there and then, “He explained everything to me, the fact, he underlined the three month contract bit, but if you wanted out as long as you phoned up and gave three months notice you could just pull out.”
But the next time he decided to take his children swimming, expecting it to be free, it didn’t go as planned. Nigel said they wanted to charge him, “I did ask at the desk one day about taking the children swimming and I think was told it would cost another £7 each to go swimming. I'd already been told they were free.”
Then a week after he’d signed the contract, a copy came through the post. But what landed on the doormat took him aback. He discovered that the small print said that in fact he couldn’t leave before his two years were up, even if he gave them three months notice.
If he had to cancel before the two years were up he would have to shell out nearly £1,400 to pay off the remaining contract. Seeing as he’d only been six times so far – that would work out at £230 a visit.
Feeling misled, Nigel told X-Ray he telephoned the gym to cancel and stopped his Direct Debit payments. But then the letters started arriving. As he told Rhodri Owen, “Debt recovery agencies were getting in touch with me and telling me I'd owed this much and if I didn't pay it, it would go further and court proceedings would start.
“It's not nice having anyone demanding money from you and threatening you with court so it wasn't very pleasant at all.”
X-Ray took a look into the legalities of gym contracts. Virgin Active who now own the gym Nigel signed up with didn’t have the legal right to enforce his contract due to a legal judgement earlier this year.
We’ve discovered that back in May, the High Court investigated a company called Ashbourne Management who wrote contracts for 700 gyms across the UK. The judge ruled that most of their contracts were unfair - partly because they tied people in for more than 12 months. And because they weren't fair they weren't enforceable.
That ruling means that Nigel would just have had to pay for 12 months to get out of his contract not the full 24.
We spoke to consumer law expert, Margaret Griffiths to ask for her take on the situation. She told X-Ray, “What it now means is that anyone who has a contract that ties them in for more than 12 months is now in a position to challenge that term as being unfair and they can cancel after 12 months as long as they give notice.
“Of course it doesn't necessarily mean that gyms will have known straight away of the ruling but certainly this particular gym knew in September and so there really is no justification for them not having resolved the matter then, when they what the new ruling was.”
We decided to find out what the picture was like across the country. X-Ray telephoned all the major chains of gyms and found they were all following the new guidelines. But when we rang 30 independent gyms, six were still selling contracts tying customers in for longer than a year.
Virgin Active, who took over all Esporta gyms in July, have responded to Nigel's complaints. They say they're sorry he felt misled when entering into the contract and all Esporta staff have now been re-trained to make sure memberships are sold accurately and honestly.
And Virgin say they've cancelled Mr Phillips' membership and cleared all the outstanding payments. They've also been working with the debt collection agency to ensure other members on Esporta two year contracts don't have the same problems.
As ever X-Ray’s advice is to read the small print before you put pen to paper.
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