Legal Protection while Eating Out

When dining at a restaurant does the law offer you protection?  

When you eat in a restaurant, you are protected by laws and regulations. Let us go through some examples and understand them better. 

Examples

Wrong information about ingredients

You are allergic to nuts and suffered an allergic reaction after eating out in a restaurant, even though you asked about the ingredients beforehand. This is a case of dishonesty. You have been mislead about the food you ordered and suffered as a result. In such a case you can seek compensation using the small claims track in the county court.  

In order to win a case, you need evidence. If you have an immediate allergic reaction to the restaurant food, you may be able to obtain a sample of the food and take it to your GP the next day for analysis. You can also take it to the environmental health office for the area where the restaurant is located.  If you were with another person, that person may agree to act as a witness to your conversation with the waiter and to your allergic reaction.

Not wanting to pay for poor service

You enjoyed a good meal at a restaurant, but the service was very slow. You have right to deduce the service charge from the bill. You do not have to pay for service that is unsatisfactory, even if the charge is described as compulsory on the menu and included in the bill.

The manager of the restaurant cannot claim a service charge under the law (given that you pay the full bill for a meal in all circumstances). You will have to be clear about why you are withholding payment of the charge.

If the menu states that a percentage charge is included in the meal price, you can reduce the bill by that percentage if the service has not been of a ‘reasonable standard’. If the percentage was not specified, anything up to 15 per cent would be expected as reasonable in law.

If pressure from the restaurant staff inhibits you from deducting the service charge, make it clear that you are paying ‘under protest’. Write this on the back of both your and restaurant’s copy of the bill and/or on the reverse of the credit card slip. This builds up your case.  

Later, write to the restaurant manager and make clear that you are aware of your rights and ask for compensation. If the manager still refuses, tell him that if the matter is not resolved by a stated deadline you are prepared to make a claim using the small claims track in the county council.  

When a vegetarian dish contains meat products

You visit a restaurant and order a dish labeled ‘vegetarian’. However, after eating the dish you realise that it contains meat products. You could report the restaurant to your local trading standards office.

Taking a legal action

Contacting the local trading standards office

In all above examples and other related cases you can contact your local trading standards office. Every local authority in England and Wales has a trading standards office whose job is to enforce the law relating to commercial trading. It has the power to investigate the restaurants and, if justified, may being an action against it under one of the laws governing the description and quality of food served in restaurants. Contact your local office for information about your rights as a consumer, and advice on any problem to do with buying and selling.  The officers also help traders with information about their rights and obligations. They will advise you and could even pursue the case on your behalf. To find your local office, phone your local council switchboard. 

Making a small claim

In order to make a small claim, fill in a claim form (available from your local county court). Provide details of who you are suing and nature of the problem. Give an account of what took place. You must also state what, if anything, you have done to try to resolve the problem. And lastly include the sum you are claiming with an explanation of how you arrived at the figure. 

Now, take two copies of the claim form to your local county court or send it by recorded delivery. Alternatively you can file your claim online by going to the court service website. Do keep an extra copy of the form with yourself. The court will send a ‘summons’ to the person or body you are claiming against. This consists of your claim form and other forms, including the ‘defence form’ for them to fill in. 

The defendant has 14 days to reply to the summons by filling in the defence form. If there is no reply, the court may enter judgement in default and award you compensation. If the defendant decides to defend the claim, the court will set a date for a hearing, usually before a district judge. You must send the court any important documents no later than 14 days before you see the judge. If both parties agree, the judge can deal with the claim without a hearing.

For further information on the law and eating out see the following article:refusing to pay for a restaurant meal