Law guide: Complaints and disputes

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Going to court (England and Wales)

Going to court (England and Wales)

Why go to court?

If you're unable to settle your dispute any other way, you may decide to issue a claim through the county court. If you have access to the Internet you can visit Moneyclaim for a simple, convenient and secure way of making a claim. You can issue claims for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Someone owing you money
  • Bad workmanship
  • Damage to property
  • Road traffic accidents
  • Personal injury
  • Goods not supplied
  • Faulty goods

County courts deal with all these types of claim. You will sometimes hear people talk about the 'small claims court'. What they really mean is the special procedure for handling smaller claims in a county court.

The system for handling smaller claims in the 'small claims track' is designed to be quick, cheap and easy to use. But it will usually only apply to claims for £10,000 or less, against a person, firm or company in England and Wales. There are some exceptions to the £10,000 limit:

  • If the claim is for personal injury resulting from a road traffic accident involving vulnerable road users (e.g. children or pedestrians), the limit is £1,000.
  • For other road traffic accident personal injury claims, the limit is £5,000.
  • For all other personal injury claims, the limit is £1,000.
  • For claims involving disrepair or damages, the limit is £1,000.

Courts in Scotland have their own legal system.

Claims of more than £10,000 are generally dealt with differently in either the 'fast track' or the 'multi-track'.

Should I still try to settle the claim?

Even though you might choose to go to court rather than use an alternative dispute resolution process (Other ways to resolve a dispute), issuing a claim should always be your last resort. The court will expect you to have acted reasonably, such as by exchanging information and relevant documents about the dispute and to generally try to avoid the need for making a claim. For example, if you're owed money, you should write a letter to the person who owes it. Say how much they owe and what it is for, and what steps you have already taken to recover the money. You should also give them a final date for payment. Include a warning that you will issue a county court claim if they do not pay by the date you give. Sometimes this warning will encourage them to pay and you will not have to go to court. Keep a copy of your letter and any reply.

What are pre-action protocols?

There are a number of disputes including personal injury, disease or illness, professional negligence, housing disrepair, defamation or construction and engineering, where court rules tell you about what steps you should take before you issue a claim. These are called 'pre-action protocols'. You can find out more about these protocols on the Justice website.

Will I get my money?

It is important to consider whether the person, firm or company you are claiming from is likely to be able to pay. If they are:

  • Unemployed
  • Bankrupt
  • Have no money of their own
  • Have no personal property and have nothing else of value belonging to them (such as a car) which is not hired or subject to a hire purchase or lease agreement
  • Have ceased to trade
  • Have other debts to pay

The court may not be able to help you get your money. However, you may be able to get your money if you're prepared to accept small instalments over a period of time.

If the person or company is bankrupt, you will probably not get your money! You should contact the Insolvency Service to find out whether the person you're claiming against is insolvent. You need to tell them the full name of the person or company and their last address. They will tell you if the person is bankrupt, or if the company is in 'compulsory liquidation', which means that the company has stopped trading and probably has neither money nor other assets.

If the person you are claiming from has already been taken to court by others, and has not paid, you may also have little chance of getting your money! You can find out if a person, firm or company at a particular address has any unpaid court orders (called 'judgments'), by contacting Registry Trust Ltd. You will have to pay a fee to search for each name you're interested in.

A search of the Register of Judgments, Orders and Fines will be made for you. You will be told the result of the search. Remember, even if you win your case, the court does not guarantee that you will be able to get the money you are owed.

Can I afford to go to court?

You will usually need to pay a fee to start your claim. The level of the fee will depend on the amount you are claiming. If the defendant does not pay once you have judgment, or says the money is not owed and your claim proceeds as a 'defended' (disputed) case, you may have to pay further fees. If you win your case, the fees may be added to the amount the defendant owes you. You may also be allowed some costs to compensate you for time lost at work. But this will not necessarily cover the total amount you have lost.

For more information see Civil and Family Court Fees

What other expenses are there?

If the person you are suing (the 'defendant') defends your claim, you may need witnesses to help tell the court what happened. You may have to pay their costs, that is, their travelling expenses to and from the court and the money they would have earned that day; although, if you win, the court may tell the defendant to pay towards those expenses.

You may also need to obtain a report from an expert, for example, a doctor, mechanic or surveyor. You may also need to ask this expert to come to a court hearing to give evidence on your behalf. You will have to pay experts' expenses and charges. But, if you win, the court may tell the defendant to pay towards these.

If your claim is for a fixed amount of money (a 'specified amount'), and the defendant is an individual who defends your claim, your claim may be transferred to the defendant's local court. This may mean you having to travel some distance for any hearing which takes place. But, if you win the case, you may be able to claim your travel costs and something towards your lost earnings for that day.

If English is not your first language and you need an interpreter, the court will not be able to help you find one. You will have to do this yourself and also have to pay any fees the interpreter charges.

If you have a solicitor and your claim is for less than £10,000, you will usually have to pay for their help yourself, even if you win your case.

Enforcing a judgment

You should also bear in mind that although the court may make a judgment in your favour (this means ordering the defendant to pay you), the court will not automatically take steps to make sure that the money is paid. If the defendant does not pay, you will need to ask the court to take action (called 'enforcing your judgment'), for which you may have to pay another fee.

Can I afford the time?

Many cases are not defended and the way in which claims for money (especially amounts of £10,000 or less) are dealt with is designed to allow you to do this yourself, with no, or only one, attendance at court. But bear in mind that if your claim is defended you will need to take time to prepare your case. For example, you will have to put together copies of all relevant documents or spend time getting statements from witnesses. You will probably be required to go to a court hearing and, even if you win the case, you may have to spend more time completing forms to enforce your judgment.

Will I need a solicitor?

As a general rule, if your claim is for a sum over £10,000 and particularly if it includes a claim for compensation ('damages'), it is advisable to seek the advice of a solicitor. In a simple case for debt, for example, you may not consider it necessary to consult a solicitor.

Also, if the amount you are claiming is £10,000 or less and is defended, you may take someone to the court hearing to speak on your behalf. This person is called a 'lay representative' and may be a spouse, relative, friend or an advice worker.

Other types of claims, for example, personal injury claims, can be more complicated and it may be preferable to get some professional help and advice no matter what the value of your claim is.

Remember that you also have to prove your claim. To do this you will need to have some understanding of legal basis for your claim and court procedures and provide evidence, for example, a report from a doctor, or statements from witnesses who saw your accident. You will also need to make a realistic assessment of the amount of damages you are seeking. It may save you time and money to first ask a solicitor or advice worker if it is worth your making a claim and, if it is, how best to prepare it, what evidence you need and what amount of damages to ask for.

If you're claiming on behalf of a limited company you may need a solicitor to go to the hearing for you. This will depend on how much money you're claiming and the type of hearing.

Issuing a claim online

If the value of your claim is less than £10,000 and the claim is against not more than two people, you can issue your claim online.

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