It is the second biggest purchase you’ll make in your life after your home but if a fault occurs when you buy a car what redress do you have? Consumer expert Tina Leonard gives Today with Pat Kenny the run down.

It can be difficult to resolve car complaints. Can you prove there is a fault with the car? Is the garage refusing to help without a manufacturer’s warranty? And all this in the context of safety concerns and with a lot of money at stake.

Fault versus normal wear and tear

I receive a lot of car complaints. It could be a situation where a car has developed consistent faults since purchase, has been repaired multiple times, then a warranty runs out and the customer still has a faulty car and has to start paying.

Or a situation where a car develops a fault a year or so after purchase, but both the garage and manufacturer dispute that there is a fault and say it is normal wear and tear.

Or a situation where a problem develops but the garage says it isn’t covered by warranty as it isn’t an inherent fault and so the consumer has to pay big bucks to pay for repair of a car they have lost trust in.

Or a situation where a problem occurs after a repair for a recall element of the car but the garage insists it isn’t related and it is difficult to prove otherwise.

Often times (especially where there are consistent problems) consumers tell me they have lost trust in the safety and proper working of their car. That is extremely serious, when we think of the safety issues involved. Yet, even when the repairs don’t work, often the garage won’t replace it or refund them and consumers can feel stuck, with nowhere to turn.

Truth is car complaints difficult to resolve

The truth is car complaints can be difficult to resolve for many reasons. Firstly, the cost involved is generally huge; it’s much easier for someone to replace or refund a faulty electric razor or kettle worth €30.

Secondly, there is the difficulty in ascertaining what is actually wrong with the car? Is the problem related to wear and tear or abuse? Is a new problem related to a previous repair the garage carried out, making them responsible for it? Is there an inherent fault? Is the rust a cosmetic issue only or a threat to the safety of the car?

Even when a consumer with a complaint gets an independent mechanics report, it can conflict with what the mechanic for the garage says, but even if one the same side, so to speak, mechanics’ reports can differ.

So, consumers must know their rights and what avenues for redress are open to them.

Your rights are same for new as for old

Your rights when you buy a new or second hand car are exactly the same as when you buy a pair of shoes or a washing machine and they fall under the Sale of Goods and Supply of Services Act 1980. The car must be: of merchantable quality; fit for it’s purpose; as described; roadworthy.

In addition it is an offence to provide false or misleading information about the car, such as the car’s history (including car clocking), specification, and the need for any repair work. It is also an offence to omitt or conceal any information regarding the main characteristics of a car.

The dealer also has to provide truthful information about their own services, for example any after-sales service they may provide or membership of a trade oragnisation.

(Remember that if you buy from a private seller, you are not covered by consumer law. But any seller is stil required to give you honest information about the car. However, if something goes wrong when you buy from a private seller, if you can’t resolve it your only option is to pursue a civil action in the courts.)

The remedies you are entitled to are repair, replacement or refund and should be provided by the garage where you bought the car.

In addition, and separate to those statutory rights, the manufacturer may have provided a warranty. This is a commercial agreement between you and the manufacturer. In my experience the garage will always refer to the warranty when it comes to repairing etc, and will charge if the warranty has expired, but all garages know that whether there is a warranty or not the legal obligation to provide a remedy lies with them.

Where to go to complain

The garage

The first port of call should always be the garage where the car was purchased. You should expect the garage to take your issue seriously and give them a chance to put it right. In many cases this is what happens. They might repair, and if that doesn’t work, a replacement or refund (full or partial depending on circumstances), are the next options.

If you have a valid manufacturer’s warranty the garage is likely to carry out any remedy under that, but consumers should remember that even if the warranty has expired, if there is a valid fault issue with the car, the garage is still liable.

Small Claims  Court

If your claim isn’t above the €2,000 limit then you can use the small claims procedure to make a claim against the garage. However, that’s a low limit when it comes to cars so mightn’t be useful in many situations, but could work when it comes to complaints about repairs or parts.

SIMI complaints procedure

If the car you bought was from a member of the Society of the Irish Motor Industry (SIMI), then you can use SIMI’s complaint process. This is for used cars only, although they hope to expand to new cars soon, and it is free to use.

In 2011, 379 complaints were received although over one third fell outside the scope of the complaints process (i.e. new cars, non-member garages, garages than had ceased trading).

Of the 246 complaints left, they related to 149 member companies, it is interesting to see what they were about.

• 123 (50%) related to the condition of the vehicles (mechanical and electrical defects), either sold, repaired or serviced.

• 94 (38%) related to alleged misrepresentation of pricing, documentation, finance, etc.

• 22 (8%) complaints related to alleged conditions regarding the previous history of vehicles.

• 11 (4%) complaints related to refund of deposits.

The consumer submits the complaint in writing, along with supporting documents, the garage has to submit a response in writing within two weeks and copies of everything are sent to both parties. Just under half (122) were resolved by this process in 2011.

For those complaints that were not resolved in this way, they can be escalated to SIMI’s Standards Tribunal. That is chaired by an independent Arbitrator and includes both industry and consumer representatives.

In 2011 59% of the cases referred to the Tribunal resulted in a refund, repair or compensation being paid to the customer. The decision of the Tribunal is binding on the seller. 41% of cases referred to the Tribunal were either rejected as unreasonable or the Tribunal found that the garages offers to resolve the complaints were considered adequate.

In 2011 claims ranged in value from €50 to €27,150 (€2,720 average) with awards totaling €106,098.40.

SIMI arbitration process

In addition there is also a arbitration process for car complaints and it’s run by the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators – Irish Branch on SIMI’s behalf. This costs the consumer €157.30 and the respondent (garage) also has to pay (€1,573). It is a legal process and the outcome is binding on both parties. For that reason you should carefully consider the strength of your case before engaging in the process as if you lose you may have to cover the costs of the respondent.

The process could all be done in writing, or there may be an oral hearing and there may have to be an inspection of the vehicle.

This is not a hugely used process as in 2011 there were 14 cases heard (17 in 2010). The process is private and details aren’t released.

By the way whenever a consumer fills in an order form in a SIMI garage, details of these various methods of redress are listed on the back. You don’t have to use arbitration however if the dispute is equal to or less than €5,000 of the the arbitration clause in the contract was not individually negotiated (as in the SIMI order form case). This means you can chose to go to court instead, but will have to weigh up all the costs / time etc when making your mind up.

For further information on their complaints mechanisms go to: www.simi.ie