The pandemic has derailed their summer wedding plans – booked for last July in Kleinburg, Ont. Five months earlier, they had seen it coming and had requested the return of the deposit at the place of their marriage. They have since been locked in a battle. “It’s ridiculous,” says Fung, who is angry that the owner of the venue is keeping his money, insisting that a big wedding can still take place.
“It’s just incredibly frustrating. ”
Countless complaints on social media and reports from various legal experts suggest they are just one of hundreds of couples across Canada struggling to negotiate refunds from providers who refuse to pay, citing their own dire finances because of COVID-19.
This raises questions about how the pandemic will affect the interpretation of the cancellation or postponement clauses that exist in most marriage contracts.
“We are navigating new waters,” said Alycia Rose, a consumer and breach of contract lawyer based in Concord, Ont.
Rose says she knew the coronavirus would throw a wrench in many wedding plans, so she quickly set up a website, The Wedding Lawyer; a strategy she says has paid off, as she receives calls and emails “seven days a week” from couples locked in marriage disputes since the onset of COVID-19.
“This is a complex contract law,” she said, “and we are facing an unprecedented pandemic”.
Before Chan even proposed, Fung knew she wanted to get married in the historic building known as the Doctor’s House.
“It has such a beautiful landscape and greenery,” Fung said. “I knew this would be the perfect backdrop for our wedding. ”
Her fiance loved her too and they deposited deposits totaling $ 10,200, about half the cost of the celebration scheduled for Saturday, July 18 of last year – a summer date for a wedding.
“It was exciting for us to be able to plan for our future,” Chan said. “We put a lot of effort, care and work into planning our wedding on this date. ”
$ 2,000 more, then $ 5,000
But when the pandemic got in the way, they were told they would have to pay $ 2,000 more to postpone to a similar summer date a year later. Soon after, as more couples rushed to reschedule, that number jumped to $ 5,000.
“It was difficult,” said Fung, who refused to pay more because, she says, they had already paid high prices for their original wedding date. As a result, she says, they were initially offered only mediocre alternatives – weekdays in the dead of winter.
When they suggested canceling the wedding altogether, they said they were told they would have to shell out over an additional $ 10,000, on top of their deposit, to cover what they had pledged to. spend in the contract. It would have meant paying $ 20,000 for a wedding that never took place.
WATCH | Fung and Chan face a “logisitcal nightmare”:
Fung and Chan claim they are entitled to a refund of their deposit because the venue failed to deliver what was promised – a wedding with 100 guests on the original date.
“Regarding the bare bones, the contract was not honored,” Fung said. “We are being taken advantage of. ”
But venue owner Ben Graci says he’s protected – in part – because the three-page contract makes it clear that deposits “are not refundable.”
Another section of the contract deals with unforeseen events that may affect the provision of services, commonly known as the “force majeure” clause.
Graci maintains that his language about “causes beyond his control” – such as a pandemic – protects him from having to return the deposit. He says offering the couple another date satisfies the deal.
WATCH | The owner of the site faces legal action:
Rose says this finding should be interpreted, as should “force majeure” clauses in general, when it comes to marriages affected by COVID-19.
“This clause can be used to excuse either party from their contractual obligations in the event of serious unforeseen circumstances – such as an ‘act of God’ or government action – and it remains to be seen whether the pandemic could apply, ”Rose said.
“Judges will have to take into account that this is new and that this scenario is different from previous situations,” she said. “And specifically weddings. ”
Graci says he’s being sued by “a dozen” couples and the courts may have to figure out how things go.
He says his business is “handcuffed” by the province’s restrictions on large gatherings.
And, he says, while the government drives the bus when it comes to fixing the Canadian economy, the wedding industry as a whole has been left behind.
WATCH | Tiessen, Wales, takes the matter to the courts:
“We’re not even a passenger on the bus. We are sitting on the bumper outside the bus. And we leave for the journey. ”
Rose admits it’s “not a black and white world.” But she and other attorneys who spoke to Go Public say couples in Ontario have a good chance of getting their money back if their wedding services can’t be delivered within 30 days of the original contract.
“The consumer has the right to unequivocally cancel the contract and demand full refund of any money paid. ”
Rose says it’s clearly spelled out in section 26 of Ontario’s Consumer Protection Act – which she says supersedes any clauses and agreements that may exist between couples and places.
WATCH | Couples are fighting to collect marriage deposits:
“It’s not something that I managed to get home with a lot of places, which leads us to litigation,” she said. “But it’s actually the main law that couples should – and will rely on – moving forward. ”
Go Public has looked at consumer protection legislation across the country and found varying degrees of protection – it seems no province other than Ontario has a law with this “30 day” clause. Quebec’s consumer protection office has acknowledged that wedding receptions have become such a problem during COVID-19 that it has created a specific web page to help couples tackle the problem; the only province to do so.
Support for small claims
Benji Wales and Sayaka Tiessen of Waterloo, Ont., Are so fed up with their wedding seller that they head to small claims court.
The couple signed a contract with Berkeley Events – the owner of various venues in downtown Toronto – in May and made two deposits totaling $ 9,600 for a wedding with 100 guests. Then the pandemic struck.
Reluctantly, they agreed to postpone their date to November, but when it became clear that a big wedding wouldn’t be possible, they demanded their refund – even saying they had split the deposit 50/50.
In their statement, they argue that the services Berkeley Events would be able to provide under COVID-19 conditions “are radically different” from those in the contract.
Berkeley Events did not respond to an email from Go Public. But in his defense, he pointed to a section of the contract containing the “force majeure” clause – which said the event “could be postponed” – and argued that there was no limitation as to when it could happen.
Wales and Tiessen say another postponement is not possible.
“It’s not fair for the consumer to have these ever-changing goals for when that date is,” Tiessen said.
They got married last fall – a small ceremony with just immediate family, at a restaurant.
Sites are pushing for support
Rose predicts that the courts will soon be inundated with marriage disputes unless both parties are able to settle.
“We’re going to have a lot of case law to look at soon and I’m really looking forward to this because I think it has to happen,” said Rose – who recommends that establishments do their best to listen to their customers. concerns, or risk damaging their reputation afterwards.
Graci, the owner of the venue, says he has joined forces with the owners of 108 other Ontario sites to lobby the government, saying many sites, like his, do not qualify for awards. rent subsidies and that they still have high insurance premiums – and other expenses like taxes – to pay.
In the end, Fung and Chan reluctantly agreed to a Sunday in June for their wedding – though they still don’t expect Ontario’s restrictions to allow the 100-person marriage they expected. .
They learned one thing from this ordeal, says Fung – love is a powerful force.
“It’s really great to see that we are working together, even in difficult times,” she said. “It’s the ray of hope for me.
Submit your story ideas
Go Public is an investigative news segment on CBC-TV, radio, and the Web.
We tell your stories, shed light on wrongdoing, and hold the powers that are held to account.
If you have a story in the public interest, or are an insider with information, contact [email protected] with your name, contact details and a brief summary. All emails are confidential until you decide to go public.
To follow @CBCGoPublic on Twitter.
Read more stories from Go Public.