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Fair Go: Couple whose Auckland wedding didn't go ahead in lockdown heading to court to get refund from venue

Wedding planning can be stressful and expensive at the best of times, but throw Covid-19 into the mix, and the strain can really start to show.

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Jordan Clark and Emma Neeley are among those looking to take their cases to the Disputes Tribunal. Source: Fair Go

So instead of heading down the aisle, several couples who booked at a West Auckland wedding venue are heading to the Disputes Tribunal instead. Their weddings were due to take place during the Level 4 lockdown, so had to be cancelled.

They couldn't reach an agreement on a rescheduled date so a protracted dispute began over whether deposits should be repaid. The venue owners saying the money should go to the cost of keeping the venue maintained, while the couples argued they'd had nothing for their money and should get it back.

Jordan Clark and Emma Neeley are among those looking to take their case to the Disputes Tribunal. Their wedding was booked for April 4th and they'd paid $6,500 as a deposit. As lockdown loomed, they discussed postponing with fewer guests, but once it was clear the country would go into Level 4, and that events couldn't be held at all, they had to reconsider.

The venue gave four options. One was to postpone the wedding to within six months and keep their deposit, the next was to postpone to after six months but before year end and lose 50% of the deposit, or to book in 2021 and lose the deposit completely. If they cancelled altogether, again, 100% of the deposit would be lost.

Emma is an intensive care nurse, and in the midst of the Level 4 lockdown she was genuinely worried about what lay ahead. She and Jordan were playing things so safely that they weren't even living together. So the thought of having the wedding before the end of the year was out of the question. For all she knew, Covid-19 cases could have been about to spiral out of control.

Jordan explained "we didn't think it was ethically responsible". There was also the fact that one of their bridesmaids lives in Australia, and one of the groomsmen lives in Canada, plus they have family in the UK, and there was no clear indication about when flights would resume, in fact, there still isn't.

As they were unhappy with the conditions set, the couple said they'd cancel but felt they shouldn't have to forfeit 100% of their deposit, saying "we think it's unfair because we've got nothing for our money at this point in time".

They'd also saved for a long time for the wedding and needed the money to put a new deposit down elsewhere. As no agreement could be reached, both sides sought legal advice. They both accepted they had what's called a "frustrated contract", which proved to more and more frustrating as time went by.

A frustrated contract occurs when an event has to be cancelled through no fault of either party. In this case, the wedding on April 4th had to be cancelled because of Level 4 lockdown. What it means is that the original contract becomes null and void, so even any non-refundable clause would no longer have any bearing.

The Contracts and Commercial Law Act 2017 states that any deposit should be returned to the customer, minus any reasonable expenses that were directly related to the wedding in question. It's this last point that is causing confusion. The two parties involved received different advice.

Emma and Jordan were led to believe they'd get pretty much all of their money back because their event had yet to take place. The venue owners were informed by their lawyer that they were entitled to the whole deposit because it should go towards the general costs of the venue such as wages, ACC fees, bank charges, grounds maintenance, licenses, power, gas, rent, rates, building repairs, telephone charges and computer consumables.

Emma and Jordan came to Fair Go with their complaint. We got in touch with two independent lawyers for their views on the situation. Both were adamant that the couple should receive the bulk of their deposit back, possibly even the whole amount.

Angela Parlane from Shine Lawyers said the only amount that could be retained by the venue owners would be for costs directly related to the couple's specific event, so for example, any food bought that was perishable. But nothing of this sort had yet been purchased.

Referring to the venue owners' list of costs, Angela said "all those running expenses are generally not expenses spent on the 4th April wedding so applying the law suggests that they're not reasonable expenses".

The venue owners provided a written response to Fair Go saying they would not be changing their position as they were following the advice of their own lawyers but they said they would refund the couple half of the deposit "in good faith", keeping $3250 for themselves. Emma and Jordan still felt this was inappropriate given the venue owners could not attribute any costs directly to their event.

Shine lawyer Angela Parlane agreed. She pointed out that many events such as concerts and matches had been cancelled due to the lockdown, as had sports team memberships. Her own family had experienced each of these, and she says in each case she received a full refund "in none of those instances did we get a letter asking us to pay a share of overheads for business or grounds maintenance costs or administrative charges so really don't see why wedding venues any different."

The owners did say they would extend the offer of transferring the deposit to a date in 2021 if the couple chose to rebook. But for Emma and Jordan, it was too little too late. They still loved the venue but they didn't like how the owners had dealt with them.

Jordan explained "if negotiation had taken place at the start then we would have rebooked with them, but after five weeks' of two lawyers, it's gone for us". Emma says she knew it had been a really rough time for the venue but added that "everyone's got stuff going on, we just need to work together ... it turned what should be a happy, fun, loving experience into something negative".

So before setting a new date for their wedding, they'll be having their day in court.