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Covid wedding refund battles 'caused so much stress and drama'

By Monica Rimmer
BBC News

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  • Coronavirus pandemic
image copyrightGetty Images
image captionWeddings were banned when lockdown began on 23 March, affecting 73,600 weddings and civil partnership ceremonies

Couples whose plans to get married during 2020 were scuppered by the coronavirus pandemic have faced struggles to reclaim deposit money, often thousands of pounds, which venues and suppliers have sometimes refused to refund.

"We're not talking a few quid here, we're talking thousands of pounds for their dream day," said wedding planner Lorraine Carroll.

When Alisha Rehman spoke to BBC News about her battle to get back £16,000 from Excellency Midlands, it prompted more couples to get in touch and share their frustrations.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) published guidance in September outlining "where lockdown laws prevented a wedding from going ahead on the agreed date as planned, the starting point under the law is that the consumer should be offered a full refund". This, however, has not always been straightforward for couples to use as a way of getting their money back.

'It's caused so much stress and drama'

image copyrightRussell Wallwork
image captionRussell Wallwork and Stacey Hurman say they now want to elope

Russell Wallwork and Stacey Hurman were due to marry on 28 May at Cadbury House near Bristol. On the first day after lockdown was announced in March the couple, who live in Ilfracombe, Devon, called their venue to ask for a refund.

"We didn't know how long it [coronavirus] would go on for," Mr Wallwork, 31, said.

"Anything could go wrong, the business could go bust, but they only offered a postponement. We'd booked an outdoor wedding, so it's not like we could get married in October, we'd just rather have our money back."

The couple had booked the wedding in 2019 and paid just shy of £9,000 for an "all-inclusive package" for 64 day guests and a further 20 in the evening.

Mr Wallwork said they came to an agreement with the venue to move the wedding to August, but when their registrar and other suppliers could not move to that date, they again requested a refund.

"We couldn't do that new date, now they're not giving us a refund, they're forcing our hand to book with them," Mr Wallwork said.

"It's caused so much stress and drama. It's really sad but we're not getting disappointed, it's happening to thousands across the UK."

A spokesman for the venue said staff were in discussions with the couple up until August, had offered the chance to postpone, and would "welcome a meeting to again discuss possible options".

'We've had to pay for two weddings'

image copyrightJenny Maybury
image captionJenny Maybury and Michael Bromwich are hoping to get married next May

Jenny Maybury, 39, and Michael Bromwich, 36, had their wedding moved from May to September.

Only a handful of guests could make the new date in September, so Ms Maybury asked the venue, Abel's Harp near Shrewsbury, Shropshire, for a refund of £5,355.

"We asked three times and on the third email, they point blank refused, they gave no reason," Ms Maybury said.

"It's been an emotional rollercoaster... we had to make a Section 75 claim with the credit card company, we paid half on a credit card and the other half was BACS so the bank couldn't do a charge back.

"We've had to save again, we managed to get another venue for another day next May, so fingers crossed, but we've literally had to save again and pay for two weddings."

Abel's Harp declined to comment.

'Never thought anything would go wrong'

image copyrightZlekha Suleman
image captionThe couple married in a small ceremony earlier this year

Zlekha Suleman, 34, was due to marry her partner Tahir Mahmood, also 34, on Good Friday. Having already paid a deposit of £2,000 to their wedding venue, The Sheridan Suite in Manchester, she was due to pay the balance days after lockdown was announced but withheld it.

She said the venue would only offer a date change and refused to return the deposit.

The couple have since married in a small religious ceremony held elsewhere.

"I know £2,000 isn't as much as some people have lost, but it's still my money, you want to get married at a nice place, I never thought something would go wrong," she said.

"I've contacted them so many times, I spoke to Trading Standards who told me to write letters and my husband has been in touch with the Financial Ombudsman Service.

"We never got to celebrate with our family and friends, it's just so devastating, but you just have to take one step at a time."

A spokeswoman for The Sheridan Suite said a number of options had been offered to Ms Suleman, one of which was a partial refund, to be paid once the venue was back up and running in its "normal capacity". She added it had followed all guidance set out by the CMA.

'We're not talking a few quid'

image copyrightLorraine Carroll
image captionLorraine Carroll has worked in the wedding industry for over 35 years

Lorraine Carroll runs Diamond Days Events and has worked for more than 35 years in wedding events. She said she has even been described by friends as a "wedding activist".

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit and most of her events were cancelled or postponed, she said she could not sit around and do nothing.

"I took it upon myself to work with a wedding lawyer and we've been doing Instagram lives... It was like a red rag to a bull," she said.

Ms Carroll, who is based in Southend, Essex, has campaigned for clearer guidance on refunds, leading to the CMA announcing in September it had secured "fairer refunds" for couples from one company.

"These people need to be refunded, they need their money," Ms Carroll said.

"It's been really difficult, I work with venues all the time, I understand where they're coming from, but the consumer is losing all the time, we need to get something changed.

"We're not talking a few quid here, we're talking thousands of pounds for their dream day."

'I'm at a loss'

image copyrightMaariyah Arshad
image captionMaariyah Arshad married her partner in a small gathering

Maariyah Arshad and her partner Asher Rehan, from Solihull, were due to marry on 18 April at Excellency Midlands. The couple booked in May 2019 and paid an initial £2,500 but the venue has refused to refund the money.

"It has just been so much headache... when you are paying thousands of pounds you expect service, they are saying their service is exceptional but there has been no communication," she said.

"I am at a loss, I don't know who to contact, what to say, where I stand."

The couple have since married in a small religious ceremony with a reception at home.

"We had bought a house that was all ready to move in and I didn't want to be paying the mortgage on an empty home and in our religion you have to be married before you can move in together so we had to do that in order to move in."

What can couples do?

image copyrightGetty Images

Consumer lawyer Dean Dunham, who runs a blog under the same name, has given his expert opinion on the situation some of the couples are in.

He said Mr Wallwork and Ms Hurman would be entitled to a refund and this position has been supported by CMA advice.

"Russell and Stacey asked for a refund, but this was denied, with the venue claiming that they were only entitled to postpone.

"The venue therefore cannot now rely on this alleged change of terms and, consequently, Russell and Stacey are entitled to a full refund, less any reasonable and actual expenses incurred by the venue.

"If the venue continues to refuse a refund, Russell and Stacey can either make a section 75 claim if they paid with a credit card; or, if not, issue a claim in the small claims court."

For Ms Maybury and Mr Bromwich, Mr Dunham said "it does not matter that only half of the cost was paid by credit card" as the card provider would have an obligation to pay the couple all of the money back.

"They should therefore go back to the card provider and demand the remainder," he said.

The CMA statement said couples would be entitled to refunds even when they had paid what a business called a "non-refundable" deposit, but businesses could withhold certain limited amounts for services already provided, such as meal tasting.

A spokesperson from the Financial Ombudsman Service said: "In the first instance, we'd advise customers to contact their wedding provider to find out if they'll be offered a refund.

"If they're not happy with what the business offers, they should make a complaint to the business.

"Insurers should not only consider the policy terms but also what's fair and reasonable in the circumstances. So even if an exclusion does apply, we'd still expect insurers to take into account the unprecedented situation created by the Covid-19 response in deciding whether it's appropriate to apply this or any other exclusion."

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