Unfair Charges: How I Took on a Gym Chain and Won!
Gym chains are often in the headlines for their high charges and seemingly inescapable contracts, but back in 2007 I came across the phenomenon of rip off gym chains for myself.
Being a person well versed in consumer law, and having years of legal experience, I thought I was beyond being tricked into anything by unscrupulous traders. In fairness, the contract I took out with LA Fitness was run of the mill, and I expected not to be able to get out of it for a full twelve months. I did as most people do when they join a gym – worked out regularly for a while and then lost interest.
Cancelling the ContractIt was over a year after I joined that I moved house and changed jobs, so I no longer managed to get anywhere near the gym in question on a daily basis. Or even a weekly basis. I felt I was just throwing money away and wanted to join a smaller, cheaper gym closer to where I had moved, so I duly emailed the gym in question on their usual sales and enquiries email address, keeping a copy for my records. I cancelled with the requisite 30 days notice and thought that was the end of the matter.
For a few months, it was, indeed the end of the matter. LA Fitness didn’t contact me, I joined the local gym, and thought the contract had been cancelled. I had no letters from the gym chain, although there was a redirection set up for my mail so they could have written, or phoned me. Or responded to my email. However, I heard nothing until a phone call a few months later from a debt collection agency.
Debt Collection and HarassmentThe first call was harmless enough. I explained to the lady in question that I had moved, and that I’d emailed my letter of cancellation some months earlier. I said that I had cancelled as per the terms of the contract, and therefore I had no intention of paying the months’ gym membership fees that the gym chain were trying to claim I now owed them. In all fairness, she was understanding and said she would put it on record and that would be the end of it.
It wasn’t. A couple of months later, two days before Christmas 2007, at eight in the evening, I was unlucky enough to be telephoned by the most aggressive and rude debt collector (well, to be fair, the only debt collector) I have ever spoken to. She informed me that I hadn’t cancelled the contract, I had to pay around six months fees , and that even though they didn’t have my address, they would find it and when they did I would owe them even more. I have to confess I was rather rude back to her, but I was so incensed at being harassed by the woman, I decided to write to LA Fitness, and the debt collection agency concerned.
The Letter to LA FitnessI explained that I had held my membership with the gym chain for well over the required 12 months, and my cancellation was cancelled in writing via email with a month's notice.
I pointed out that an electronic mail legally suffices – quoting case law (Goodman v J. Eban Ltd (1954) )which said a ‘signature’ is "the affixing in some way, whether by writing with a pen and pencil or by otherwise impressing on a document, one’s name or 'signature' so as personally to authenticate the document".
I added that “the postal acceptance rules allow for communication of acceptance of a contract to be deemed effective from the date of posting of a letter. There is no specific case law around an e-mail but I suspect given the current status of e-mail contracts that proof of sending would be sufficient to prove that the contract was cancelled in accordance with your terms and conditions.”
An important part of the letter was that I made sure I said that I was formally disputing the amount owed.
Harassment and the Administration of Justice Act 1970Just to make my point, I mentioned my legal background, and that I would not be intimidated by an aggressive debt collector, pointing out that the Administration of Justice Act 1970 states that... "who harasses another with demands for payment which by their frequency, or the manner or occasion of their making, or any accompanying threat or publicity are calculated to subject him or his family or household to alarm, distress or humiliation is committing an offence under the act". I told them that I considered calling to threaten me, at eight in the evening, two days before Christmas, as harassment. I asked for an apology and an assurance that the matter would go no further.
I got neither – but I didn’t hear from them again.