Q: No work and retrospective upfront fee paid
While studying in London I was accepted on to the books of an agency. I paid £300 after they told me I would certainly get work and would be able to pay the costs off quickly after a couple of jobs. That was three years ago and I never heard anything further. They ignored my emails and their phone numbers are not in use. Is there anything I can do?
A: When you made the payment three years ago, it was not then illegal for a modelling or entertainment agency to charge an up-front fee for registering a worker on its books, even though no work may subsequently be introduced. Modelling and most types of job in the entertainment industry were then excluded from the general prohibition against employment agencies charging up front registration fees.
This year, however, the government has introduced new legislation which has, in effect, cancelled this exclusion and made all such up-front registration charges to workers illegal, with certain limited exceptions, although the new law does not help you in your present situation because it is not retrospective.
Under the new rules the only exceptions where up-front registration fees remain legal are where a charge is made for including a worker's details in a printed publication, and either (a) this is the only work-finding service to be provided to the worker by the agency concerned (publications such as Spotlight and Contacts come to mind in this connection) or (b) the fee is no more than a reasonable estimate of the cost of production and circulation of the publication concerned and in either such case, prior to charging the fee the agency has supplied a copy of the current edition of the publication concerned and set out its terms of business. The same applies to publishing in electronic form e.g. on a website.
So far as your contractual position is concerned, the agency may deny having given you any assurance about getting you work, or may contend this was only mentioned as being likely or possible or less than guaranteed. In the latter event they will have to support their contention with evidence of having made a reasonable attempt to find you work.
If you can satisfy a court that you were promised sufficient introduction of work by the agency to enable you to pay off the registration fee 'quickly' - ie within a reasonable time thereafter - and three years have elapsed without any work being introduced by the agency, that would arguably constitute a breach by the agency of a representation or warranty inducing contract and entitle you to damages, comprising at least the £300 you have paid plus interest.
You should be able to bring such a claim in the small claims court of your local county court. The court office will help you complete the required forms for starting such an action. If, however, the agency operated through a limited company which is no longer trading and has no identifiable assets, any judgement you might obtain from the court may well turn out to be worthless. The fact the agency's phone numbers are no longer in use indicate this may well be the case. I suggest you call at its place of business in order to see what you can find out.
To sum up, what the agency did was not illegal at the time but you may have a good claim against it for breach of contract, depending on the evidence.
First published 14th October 2004