Ask LH: Can A Restaurant Refuse To Split My Bill?

Dear Lifehacker, Is it legal for a restaurant to not allow split bills? What would happen if at the time of payment you suddenly realise you do not have enough money in your account so you want to pay most of it from your savings and the remainder from a credit card? Thanks, Curious Diner

Restaurant picture from Shutterstock

Dear CD,

As we’ve pointed out before, in Australia, it’s legal for businesses to accept or refuse any type of payment they like. There is no obligation to accept any particular form of payment (including cash). If a business wants to display a sign that says “cash only” or “credit card only”, there’s nothing illegal about it.

The same goes for split bills; if the restaurant doesn’t want to accept them, you have to put up with it. Their only real obligation is to ensure that this condition is made clear to diners before they order, which is why you’ll typically see signage on menus or at the counter. Don’t like it? “Go to another restaurant” is the consumer law approach.

That doesn’t mean there are no rules around payments in restaurants. If businesses want to charge an extra fee for using a credit card, that fee can’t be excessive and must reflect the actual cost of processing that card. Previously, restaurants were also required to have a separate menu if they charged extra on public holidays, but that law was recently changed, and a sign saying “10 per cent extra” is now considered sufficient. (Thanks to commenter timinator for pointing out the change.)

But again, there’s no legally-backed consumer right to demand that a bill can be split in Australia. Restaurants generally resist split bills because they take up lots of staff time — each person has to pay individually, and then the bill has to be checked to make sure everything has been covered. Others embrace the concept, hoping it will attract more customers. Approaches vary, so it always pays to check if you’re out in a group.

As for the second part of your question: your inability to pay for a meal you have ordered is surely as much your problem as the restaurant’s. With that said, under those specific circumstances I would always ask regardless of signage: after all, the restaurant wants to be paid, and it’s not a question of having to work out how payments are being split amongst multiple people.


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