An estimated 10-to-15% of couples break off their nuptials. Some postpone, but if you’ve already set a date and booked a wedding venue, the financial fall-out can be significant. File picture: Juan Carlos Ulate/Reuters
The royal wedding is finally over, but there was a fair amount of drama in the lead-up. The bride’s father was, then wasn’t, then definitely wasn’t, going to attend; and the media was awash with reports about her embarrassing family.

But while Meghan Markle and Prince Harry were unlikely to call off their nuptials at any point, many couples do, leaving heartbreak, disappointment and financial distress in their wake.

As one US headline observed: “Stuff happens, even to royals.”

And that stuff could well destroy even the best laid wedding plans. An estimated 10-to-15% of couples break off their nuptials. Some postpone, but if you’ve already set a date and booked a wedding venue, the financial fall-out can be significant.

Which is why couples should perhaps be more interested in venues’ cancellation policies, than their quaint chapel or idyllic setting.

Asking about refund policies is not as romantic as planning that ideal wedding with the perfect dress, sweet-scented bouquets, multi-tiered cakes, and princess décor, but it is a necessary calculation that should be factored into your choice of venue.

One Joburg man (who declined to be named) tells of a wedding venue in Muldersdrift, which has been non-committal about refunding any money after he paid over R45 000 in security and advance deposits. He and his wife-to-be signed a contract with Toadbury Hall on January 27, but on April 24 - 102 days before they were due to marry - they broke it off and she contacted the venue to cancel the wedding.

That fall out cost him R35 000 and he’d like some of it back, please.

He doesn’t recall discussing cancellation penalties with the wedding planner, but after their wedding was called off, things changed somewhat. So he contacted Toadbury three times for a copy of the contract, so he could study their cancellation policies.

It was then that he saw he was due back 50% of the money he had paid in terms of the contract. Since he hadn’t heard from the venue, he wanted to know if it was legal to withhold a deposit in terms of the Consumer Protection Act (CPA).

The CPA makes blanket no-refunds policies illegal, so the fact Toadbury had a cancellation policy in place was a positive sign.

The Act allows contracts to be cancelled within 20 business days so you can cancel any advance booking and get a refund, minus a reasonable cancellation penalty. What constitutes “reasonable” is unclear though, so suppliers should spell out how they calculate that penalty to prevent disputes.

Toadbury didn’t spell out how they arrived at the 50% calculation, and failed to respond to requests for a breakdown. Instead, they questioned why the groom hadn’t contacted them about the refund and then told me it was due to the bride, as per the contract.

But that’s not quite correct: I put it to the wedding planner that the R10 000 security deposit differed from the R35 000 advance deposit which he had paid and was owing to him - minus cancellation penalties - and that they owed the money. It was not up to the former couple to contact them to request their money back. The wedding planner failed to respond to that and my subsequent e-mails.

Of course, it’s not only the bridal couple that suffers financially: the wedding venue is also affected. Bonita Hughes, a complaints manager at the Consumer Goods and Services Ombudsman, explained that it’s vital to find a fair balance between their competing interests: that of the venue to stay in business and that of the booking party to receive back their money for which they perceive they have received little or no value - and the venue not to profit from their misfortune.

“For vendors in the wedding business, damages from a cancellation can range from losses on food that spoils, to alteration costs on gowns, to lost opportunities for booking another wedding.

It can be particularly difficult for many vendors to prove monetary loss for a missed opportunity because a certain weekend was popular or the vendor did not have time to hire adequate help. By holding a date open, the vendor may have to turn down other jobs on that date.

“Section 17(4) (of the CPA) permits factors such as the length of notice of cancellation provided by the consumer and the reasonable potential for the service provider, acting diligently, to find an alternative consumer and the general practice of the relevant industry to be taken into consideration, in deciding whether a cancellation fee is fair.”

She said the Conventional Penalties Act 15 of 1962 allows contracting parties to agree in advance on the amount of damages that will be payable by the one to the other in the event of a breach of contract by means of a penalty stipulation, so long as the penalty is not out of proportion to the harm suffered by the innocent party.

“Therefore both the CPA and Conventional Penalties Act allow for damages but these should be reasonable.”

Hughes agrees that the supplier should be able to show what losses or costs were incurred as a direct result of the cancellation, such as time spent with the couple, an apportionment of costs of marketing and administrative costs, which, in this instance, has not happened.

“It is always wise to look at similar wedding vendors in the same area to see what their refund policies are because industry practice is also an indication of whether the supplier’s refund policy is fair.”

Always, always read the fine print.

* The Consumer Goods and Services Ombud mediates disputes between consumers and suppliers of consumer goods. It’s a free service. Call 0860 000 272, visit www.cgso.org.za.

** Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected], tweet her @georginacrouth and follow her on Facebook at ww.facebook.com/ConsumerAgonyAunt