Leather is a byword for luxury and quality but more claims are being made in the courts over three-piece sofas that fail to live up their billing.

Tina Leonard tells Pat Kenny what your rights are if your leather cover starts deteriorating or maybe turns out not to be animal skin at all.

One of the main issues is insufficient labeling and a lack of knowledge n the customer’s part as to what can constitute the label ‘real leather’.

Types of leather

Full grain leather is the top skin of the animal and is the best and most natural hide.

However, bovine skins are very thick so the remaining layers underneath this top layer can be split. These ‘splits’ are still leather but do not have the same durability or quality as the top grain.

Splits are best used in the making of shoes and accessories and for making suede for example, but for upholstery purposes you could begin to see problems, especially if too many ‘splits’ have been used

You might also get a sofa that has a combination of full grain and ‘splits’, with the ‘splits’ on the less hard-wearing areas such as arms, sides and backs.

So, the next step down from full grain (in terms of quality and durability) would be a sofa made completely from ‘splits’ or from ‘bi-casts’, which is essentially a ‘split’ finished off with a coating of PVC or polyurethane.

Last there is artificial leather such as PVC and polyurethane. While these are not necessarily the poorest quality sofas in terms of durability, it would be misleading to sell this as real leater.

So, how do you know which you are getting?

1. Labelling requirements

You may be familiar with labels saying that the sofa is ‘genuine leather’ or 100% leather. These may be from the manufacturer of leather guilds, but believe it for not this is not a legal requirement.

There are several pieces of legislation dealing with textiles and textiles labeling but leather is not a textile according to the definition of these laws as it is an animal hide, so these rules don’t apply.

So, if the sofa is 100% textile, a label is legally required but if the sofa is covered in 100% leather it does not.

However if the textile is partly made from another product then it may have to be labeled. The rule is that if the textile consists of at least 80% by weight then the product is regarded as a textile and the labeling rules apply.

So, this means that if you have a sofa that is covered in 80% or more textile and 20% or less of leather it will have to have a label indicating this.

But if the sofa is covered in say 79% textile and 21% leather it doesn’t require a label at all.

2. What about the information given in store?

Quite aside from any labeling law requirements, there are other pieces of consumer legislation that require the seller to be clear and honest about the products they are selling.

For example, under the Consumer Protection Act 2007 the seller can’t mislead or be untruthful about the product and this also relates to the “composition, ingredients, components or accessories” of a product.

Plus, under the Sale of Goods and Supply of Services Act 1980 the consumer is entitled to products that are “as described”, “fit for purpose” and “of merchantable quality”.

In other words, if you are told it’s a hard wearing, full leather sofa then that’s exactly what it should be.

3. Why are the problems resolving complaints?

By the time a complaint ends up in the small claims system, the consumer will already have tried to resolve it with the shop where they bought the product. The fact that there are so many disputes about leather sofas in the small claims system shows how difficult these problems can be to resolve.

Most usually the dispute will come down to what the customer was told in the shop; how the sofa was described to them. The consumer will often say they were told the sofa was leather, or that they assumed it to be leather. The shop often asserts that they never said the sofa was full leather. Given the difficult in proving what was said, the high cost involved and the element of consumer expectation of the product, these are obvious barriers to an easy resolution in many instances.

What you should look for if you are buying a leather sofa?

• Ask the smart questions

Ask whether it is natural grain or imitation grain? Ask if the covering is full grain leather, whether it contains different types of leather, or if it is part or wholly made from artificial leather. If the seller doesn’t know, walk away.

• Ask to see a sample swatch

A sample swatch of the leather should be available to you. Take a look at it and feel it. Put it against the sofa in store and check that the swatch you’re looking at matches all parts of the sofa, front, back and sides.

• Look at the panels

Look at the back and side panels on the sofa. If it is real grain the leather panels should be relatively small, if the panels are large the grain may not be natural.

• Consider price

Price is generally an indicator of quality when it comes to leather furniture. You can only get what you pay for. So, while let’s say €1,000 for example is a huge amount of money for most, it would be a very cheap price for a full leather suite, so bear that in mind.