Running out of water and unfair terms

Running out of water and unfair terms

As I write this I imagine that many of our readers will have run, or know people who ran, the London Marathon on Sunday and be basking in the afterglow of their achievement.  However, the weekend before, the Sheffield half marathon was in the news for all the wrong reasons.  It was cancelled because water for the water stations around the course had not arrived, and the organisers cancelled the event as it had to provide a set number of water stations under British Athletics rules.  The cancellation happened right at the last-minute, when runners were lined up ready to go.  Many did not hear the announcements and ran anyway, and received a time and medal.  Others did not run, wasting weeks of training.  Many were very annoyed and expected an explanation and refund from the organisers.

It is unclear what happened. The water company said that its terms made clear that it had to be paid in advance.  The organisers of the event reportedly said that they would not provide refunds to entrants.  Their website now states that they will investigate what happened as there are a number of issues to consider.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this incident, many people are wondering whether race organisers should provide refunds when they cancel events.  Many say in their terms and conditions that they incur costs before the event is staged (road closures, water, medals, chip timing etc) and so if they have to cancel the event at the last-minute they will not provide refunds.  Some will give runners a free place the following year.  But if I pay for a service which I do not receive, should I not receive a refund?  Why is an event like this any different to paying for my lawn to be mown?  If the gardener did not turn up, he would not be paid.

Many races are organised by clubs and charitable organisations on a not-for-profit basis – to raise money for club funds and/or local or other charities.  However, many races are now organised by for-profit companies.  Many runners feel that if an event is cancelled due to bad weather, it is not the fault of the organisers and a refund cannot be expected (eg the Wokingham half marathon was cancelled in February 2014 due to floods on the course after the very wet winter – entrants have been offered free entry to the 2015 event).

But in a case where a race organiser is to blame, or may be able to seek compensation from its supplier, depending on the circumstances, should a refund be forthcoming?  Is it an unfair term under the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations not to offer one?

Although the Office of Fair Trading has now been replaced by, among others, the Competition and Markets Authority, its guidance is still valid. I looked at the OFT’s guidance on events and unfair terms.  It does not specifically deal with sporting events, but does, on page 17, consider non-performance of the contract. It says:

“We consider that consumers should be entitled to a full refund of prepayments if the event, performer or activity is cancelled, rescheduled, or if there is a material change to the subject matter of the contract, that is, what the consumer has contracted to see, hire or participate in.”

So the OFT’s view is that event organisers should provide refunds.  Race organisers would probably say that the cost of insurance would be prohibitive and they would have to pass that cost onto entrants.  Ultimately entrants might prefer to pay less and take their chances.  Or maybe they could be offered the choice of paying a little more for their entry to have insurance.  This issue appears to be one that will continue to excite debate and discussion.

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