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One of the six most common problems that consumer lawyers at the Citizens Advice Bureau have to deal with is that of unfair gym contracts.
Things have improved over the last few years (see the section below about a landmark case in 2011 that helped this) but you still have to be careful with potentially unfair gym contracts. Gyms are businesses and, particularly in January and the run-up to the summer, they have lots of people trying to get in, so there is still the possibility of sharp practices going on.
Also, if you have taken out a gym membership and realise a couple of months’ in that there’s a problem with the gym, or the contract, or your situation, read on!
Thanks to new(ish) guidelines from the Office of Fair Trading, gyms and fitness centres now have to have fairer terms in their contracts so that people are not trapped for years paying for overpriced and under-performing gym memberships.
With many gyms, you can now even cancel if you have moved away and cannot visit their premises regularly. You can also cancel if you get ill and are not able to do the movements you used to be able to.
The Office of Fair Trading has some guidelines here to show you if the gym you’re thinking of visiting is ‘fit to join’ – i.e. what to look out for in their membership contract. Take a look at it here.
Sadly, as with other contracts, if you decide you don’t want to go back to your gym after a few months, you are likely to have to pay a fee, usually equal to the amount you would have paid for the remaining months.
In some cases, gyms allow you to transfer your membership (for a fee) to someone else. Again, it depends on the contract, but if you want to offload it to a friend, or you find someone on Facebook or Gumtree perhaps who wants your membership for cheaper, then speak to your gym about it.
However, if your gym contract is worded unfairly then you can cancel it without penalty.
There are various things that could make your gym contract unfair – and therefore void. For example the contract could include one of the following:
Any of these factors could mean you’re the victim of unfair gym contracts and it will nullify your membership. If that’s the case then you can cancel your membership without having to pay a fee.
Back in 2011 the Office of Fair Trading took one gym company to court over their unfair gym contracts and won.
A company called Ashbourne Management Services Ltd drew up membership agreements and collected payments from about 300,000 customers of small gyms in the UK. These contracts tied people into membership of clubs for between one and three years. They also demanded immediate payment of the full sum – often hundreds of pounds – for the whole minimum period if people left after a few months.
They were really heavy-handed in their dealings with people who needed to leave because they left the area or just didn’t want to go anymore. If people refused to pay for the minimum term, Ashbourne threatened to damage their credit rating by referring the debt. The firm had registered nearly 17,000 defaults with credit reference agencies by July 2009.
The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) brought an action against the company after they had loads of complaints about their unfair gym contracts. Happily, the judge agreed with them. He said that the ‘minimum period’ was a trap the consumers could easily fall into. He said it was also unfair of them to demand payment even when the member had a genuine dispute about the quality of the gym.
He ordered that Ashbourne stop using or relying on its current standard unfair gym contracts and refrain from using unfair terms in the future, insisting that they should make the contracts no longer than 12 months long. Ashbourne has been told they may not report or threaten to report consumers to credit reference agencies if their terms continue to be unfair.
The judge decided that the contracts couldn’t be treated as credit agreements – if they were classed in this way then Ashbourne would need a license.
So, as always, be very careful about the contracts you sign, particularly unfair gym contracts. Avoid any leisure centres that insist on anything more than a six-month contract unless you are a total gym-bunny and you know you will go at least three times a week. These contracts are often nasty and they will continue to be nasty until more court cases like these stamp on them!
In fact, if you check out our article on how to cut the price of your gym membership, you will see that there are loads of cheaper alternatives, including PayAsYouGym, which gives you the option of one day and one month bundles enabling you to use gyms all over the country, not just a single one you have to keep going back to.