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Problems with the post

You've waited ages for a parcel, but what do you do if it arrives in pieces or doesn't turn up at all?

We've all been there. Waiting for that letter, or package, or postcard. Running downstairs every time the letterbox goes, only to find another handful of pizza menus and bills (funny how they never get lost in the post, isn't it?)

2009, though, was the year that Great Britain lost confidence in our postal service. An industrial dispute between Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union lead to a national strike, and surplus warehouses filled up with undelivered mail that would not reach its destination for weeks - if at all.

Lost mail

So how can you make sure your mail reaches its destination? And what are your rights if things go missing between the postbox and the letterbox? The most reliable way of making sure your items reach their destination is by sending them by recorded post or special delivery. Both require a signature from the recipient, so you know your expensive eBay purchase won't be left to soak through on a wet doorstep. Special Delivery, meanwhile, delivers next-day with added compensation if your mail doesn't arrive - offering up to £50 for the 9am service, and £500 for packages you choose for delivery by next day at 1pm.

What you might not know is that you can even get compensation for lost mail sent by conventional first or second class delivery. If you're worried something you've sent has gone missing, the first step is to wait 15 working days - before that amount of time has elapsed, the post office won't acknowledge your mail as lost. The next step is to fill in a claim form, which is available at the counter at all post offices - or you can find on the Royal Mail's website.

Royal Mail also request 'Basic Evidence', but beware - a simple receipt won't fit the bill. "Evidence of posting for ordinary first and second class items can be obtained from all post office counters in the form of a free certificate of posting," says a Royal Mail spokesperson. "These can be used for a single item or for multiple postings. Once completed, the items should be handed to the counter clerk who will the stamp and verify the certificate of posting.

"As well as claiming for postage costs, you can also claim for the value of an item, so long as you've still got the receipt or "any documentation that can reasonably provide proof of purchase or value" - which includes credit card statements, PayPal printouts, or anything similar. The top end of compensation is the equivalent of 100 first class stamps at the first weight step†- currently about £35 - so if you're sending something precious, don't scrimp on the insurance.

Read the full details of the Royal Mail's compensation procedure for lost items.

Damaged mail

What about if your package arrived, but it's taken a knock along the way? If your mail arrives damaged, the most important thing to do is keep the damaged item and packaging intact - you'll need them to send them to the Royal Mail for assessment. You'll also need basic evidence of postage, as described above.

Compensation for damaged letters or parcels is similar to the process for lost mail. Before you make a claim, though, try to assess if the damage is meaningful. Royal Mail states that compensation depends on items in a postal packet suffering "a degree of harm that reasonably impairs the material function or contents of the item, solely as a result of its transmission through the post," - so you may struggle to persuade them of the importance of a cracked CD case. The claim must be made within 12 months of the date of posting, and the claim itself can be made by the sender or the recipient - although only one will be paid compensation.

Delayed mail

Surprisingly, it's even possible to claim compensation for mail that didn't arrive on time. With basic evidence of postage, you can claim the cost of six first class stamps if first or second class post arrives three or more working days after the due date. If you've posted something by special delivery, meanwhile, you get a full refund if the item arrives after the promised time, with added compensation if the item is delivered more than 24 hours late.

How to complain

Think the Royal Mail have given you a raw deal? According to Consumer Focus, the first step is to lodge a complaint with them directly by calling their customer services on 08457 740 740 or lodging a complaint on the website.

If you're not satisfied with the handling of your complaint, you can take it up with the Independent Postal Redress Scheme†- their details are available on request from the Royal Mail, but you will have to go through the complaints procedure first. For any complaints relating to a licensed postal service other than Royal Mail, contact the postal industry regulator, the Postal Services Commission, for more details.

Updated: 09/01/2013

Louis Pattison

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