Is a business owner's word legally binding?

In Sept last year I booked interstate holiday apartment for four nights in March and was well aware that this was non-refundable. In Dec, due to an emerging health issue, I contacted the owner to say I wasn’t able to travel and asked her if it would be possible to get a refund in the event that she was able to get another booking for the days in question. Her reply was: “sorry to hear this news, if you could cancel the booking, so that I can put it as available, once filled I will contact you arrange refund, hope all is well on your side…” I was relieved by this response and moved by her kindness. I cancelled the booking and she subsequently refunded the cleaning fee portion of the price. Last month I noted that the accommodation had been booked for all of the four days so I contacted the owner who replied that 'bookings have been slow so we’ll have to leave it as it stands." Since then she has not replied to my emails. So my question is - do I have any recourse?

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If you don’t have evidence of what was agreed, such as a message confirming that a refund will be given if the accommodation was rebooked, a recording of the conversation etc, it becomes ‘he says, she says’. In such cases, the standard terms and conditions associated with the booking will apply.

The other complexity of ‘he says, she says’ is they did a partial refund of the cleaning fees. The accommodation provider could easily argue this was the refund which was agreed and only after some time you believed you had a right to full refund since it was rebooked.

If you have evidence, such can be used demonstrating there was mutual agreement to amend the standard term and conditions. You may then have sufficient ground to take the matter further.

This is why it is important to get any agreement to change standard terms and conditions in writing.

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I think not as the actions taken are in accordance with a legal stated policy. The oral exception to that policy you were given by phone is like most oral contracts - worth almost nothing.

Which leads to me wondering about recording such phone calls. My understanding is that if you told them at the start the call was being recorded and they agreed it would be legal to record it. This principle is used by every organisation who gives you a message that their calls are monitored, you have given permission for an otherwise private communication to be recorded.

It seems such a recording would slow down those who are inclined to promise much and do little. What do others think?

Another approach would be before the end of the call to ask for a confirming email repeating the essence of whatever has been promised, refusal would to me be an indication of the likelihood of the promise being fulfilled.

Thank you - sorry for the ambiguity - the correspondence was via email and her words exactly as stated in my post.

Spot on. A verbal agreement is not worth the paper it’s written on. I think a quote from Samuel Goldwyn.

Get everything in writing. Then you have some evidence.

Edit: oops, my post before seeing that the correspondence was in writing. Well then, go after them.

If you now want to pursue the matter at law I think it would be a civil case which would be expensive. It is up to you if you want to embarrass the host buy publishing their email and their identity.

Not necessarily expensive, the cost of Fair Trading is free and if going down the formal ACL route this is a required step if a formal letter is not responded to or not responded to in a favourable manner. After Fair Trading it would be a Civil and Administrative Tribunal and the cost for lodging is not an onerous amount (and if successful is claimable as a cost in the CAT). Free advice and support are also available to consumers at Consumer Law centres and we do list some of them on this site at Free Legal Advice Centres.

My advice is to seek advice at a centre or if wished at a paid for law firm. This will give better guidance what the claim’s chances of success are. For the demand in writing, CHOICE and the ACCC provide templates for making the request.

ACCC ‘s Contacting a business to fix a problem | ACCC

CHOICE’s https://www.choice.com.au/shopping/consumer-rights-and-advice/make-a-complaint/articles/consumer-complaints-checklist

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Thinking further, if your have travel insurance, you should have grounds to make a claim. A claim will only be worth doing if the value of the accommodation is greater than the policy excess.

If this is in writing, it is ambiguous to what will be refunded. As indicated above, the accommodation provider could argue a refund was made (cleaning fee) and they believe this is what the context of the message. You will be trying to argue it related to a full refund. Where there is ambiguity or dispute, the only way to resolve would be to take legal action. If there is ambiguity, decision could be made in accordance with the cancellation terms and conditions attached to the original booking.

Do you have anything that states you would receive a full refund? This would make it clear cut that they haven’t honoured the amended cancellation policy. Amending is possible at discretion of the accommodation provider in agreement with you.

Edit: You can try and formally write to the accommodation provider stating that it was your understanding that it was agreed in writing that if they were able to rebook your cancelled booking, that they would refund the full booking amount in addition to refund of the cleaning fees which you have already received. It would be worth stating the standard cancellation policy, but indicate you believe was subsequently amended using their discretion through the wording indicated above. Also advise that you are considering taking it further and whether you take further action will be dependent on their reply. See what their response is, if any.

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In addition to these suggestions, if you paid by credit card you might also approach your bank to reverse this transaction. You’ll need to show that you made every attempt to deal directly with the business, so try the above suggestions and keep really good records. Good luck!

Thank you to all who engaged with this topic and for the considered responses. I have received a partial refund of 25% of the room rate per night. I did speak to the business co-owner/manager and she repeatedly cited the hit they’d taken from Covid as the reason for being unable to give a full refund. I did get the feeling that her promise to refund had not gone down well with the other owners (husband and parents) but I suppose that’s irrelevant - as is the fact that they re-let the accommodation for the entire period of my booking and at a higher rate. It doesn’t sit well, but is a cheaper lesson than it might have been on signing up for anything non-refundable.

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Appreciate the feedback. Some minor success in the end.

Making a non-refundable payment when booking doesn’t protect one from cancellation fees. Many bookings which don’t require non-refundable payments on booking still have cancellation fees associated with a booking.

A lesson is to understand the booking terms and conditions, including what happens if a booking needs to be cancelled (or changed). This applies to any booking whether it is accommodation, a concert/event, transportation, hairdresser, restaurant etc. Most who book don’t read cancellation policies assuming they won’t need to cancel a booking.

The other lesson is if booking value is significant and relates to travel, consider domestic/international travel insurance. Domestic/international travel insurance can cover unavoidable cancellations which meet requirements of the policy.

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