What are your rights if the garage charges you hundreds of dollars more than it said it would, and then won’t give your car back unless you pay?

You put your car into a garage for repairs, and they quote you $400 for the job. But when you go to pick it up, you find the bill has climbed to $950. The car is blocked in, and the garage manager refuses to let you have it back until you pay.

You dispute this and say you’ll be back with some legal advice. But the manager gets in first with a letter from his own lawyer. This explains that the garage is within its rights to keep the car until you’ve paid in full. The reason? According to the letter, the garage has a “repairer’s lien”.

What is a repairer’s lien?
A repairer’s lien is a legal right for repairers to hold goods (such as motor vehicles) until they have been paid for work they have done on them. The right is “possessory”. That is, it depends on the repairer having possession of the goods.

So the garage is entitled to hang on to the car?

No. Provided you offer to pay the price you were originally quoted, the garage is not entitled to hold your car. It can only apply a lien if it can justify the price it is demanding. But a quote is binding, so you cannot be asked to pay more.

In fact, if you offer to pay the price originally quoted and the repairer continues to hold your car hostage, it may be liable to pay you “damages in conversion and detinue”. This applies where goods are intentionally held even though someone else is entitled to them.

But what if the garage simply refuses to release my car?
If this is the case, and you have the money, pay the full amount owing. But tell the retailer, preferably in writing, that you are doing so “without prejudice”. This means you reserve any legal right you may have to seek damages or compensation, even though you have agreed to pay. You can then claim compensation in a Disputes Tribunal.

It is worth negotiating. The garage might release the car if you pay the original quoted amount, and agree to take the case to a Disputes Tribunal. If the garage accepts this, its right to possession ends. It can not legally take back your car, even if you do not pay the balance the garage believes is owing.

What if the garage gave me an estimate?
An estimate is not binding in the same way as a quote, but still should be a reasonable indication of the price for the work. We suggest you adopt the same approach, offering to pay what you consider justified and taking the matter to a Disputes Tribunal if necessary.

What if I simply leave the car with the garage and refuse to pay?
After 2 months, if the car has still not been collected and the work paid for, the Wages Protection and Contractors’ Liens Act Repeal Act entitles the garage to sell the goods at auction to recover its costs. However, before selling the car, the garage must:

  • Give you 1 week’s notice in writing (if they know your address).
  • Advertise its intention to sell the car in the local newspaper (regardless of whether it knows your address).

The advertisement must include:

  • The name of the garage (as the company to which the money is owed).
  • The amount of the debt.
  • A description of your car.
  • The time and place of the sale.
  • The name of the auctioneer.

If the car is sold at auction the garage must use the proceeds of the sale to pay:

  • The cost of advertising.
  • The cost of selling the car.
  • The amount of the debt.

If any money is left over, it must be paid to the Registrar of the District Court nearest to the place of the sale, where it will be held for your benefit.

Drycleaners, jewellers and others who often hold unclaimed goods must obey the same rules, although we are aware that many don’t.