How to avoid a living nightmare in court

The emotion and stress of taking a case to the small claims court can be corrosive
The emotion and stress of taking a case to the small claims court can be corrosive

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There can’t be many of us who haven’t been ripped off at some time or other, from the used car that turned out to be a banger, to the home improvement job from hell.

Conventional wisdom can be best summed up as ‘don’t get mad, get even’. If all else fails there’s always the small claims court to fall back on.

But as Streetwise readers have discovered, going to law doesn’t always equal justice.

Regular reader Stacy Carter was stressed to breaking point when she took on a local trader who had sold her a duff moped. After eight months of problems with the bike and being sent from pillar to post, she decided enough was enough and to sue for a refund.

What followed was a living nightmare.

‘In total I ended up going to court on five occasions,’ she said. ‘The defendant either didn’t turn up, or ignored court orders, and on one occasion the court was double booked.

‘On the final appearance in court although I won, surprisingly I’ve not been paid the money owed as ordered by the court. When I contacted the court about it I was told they don’t enforce the order. I have to apply for it to be done at extra cost, and there’s no guarantee they’ll recover my money as they can’t make the trader pay.

‘It seemed to me the court was a waste of time. I spent eight months not knowing what was going to happen, being worried and stressed by the cost and the money I’d lost. I ended up worse off attending the court and paying the hearing fee.’

Stacy is not alone.

Attracted by the prospect of settling a dispute without lawyers in a friendly environment seems like good news.

Although the small claims track within the county court is designed to serve as a low cost user-friendly process, the emotion and stress can be very corrosive, research has found.

Luca Badioli, a West Sussex Citizens’ Advice debt adviser, interviewed 20 people as part of a research project to learn about their experience of going to law in the small claims court. Those who were prepared to take the DIY approach said the experience was ‘hell on earth’ and caused them to take time off work because their health had suffered.

And winning a court judgment doesn’t mean you’re going to get paid.

A report by IFF Research for Consumer Focus, a Government watchdog, found that one in four small claims users who won their case received only part of the compensation, while six per cent ended up with nothing.

But Streetwise also receives letters from satisfied small claims court users.

People who have won their case, even without engaging expensive lawyers, point out that the key is to be well organised and able to present facts in a logical order.

Reader Mike Mason from Havant, whose dispute with a landlord refusing to return his deposit on a rented flat wound up in Portsmouth County Court, said he was more than satisfied with the outcome, even though it took a long time.

‘I found the court staff helpful, and the district judge went out of his way to put me at ease by recognising that I had little or no knowledge of the process or the law,’ he said.

Luca Badioli has some sound key advice for anyone thinking of using the small claims court to settle a dispute.

‘Ask yourself – do I have a good chance of winning? If I win can the other party pay? Is this worth my time and money? Have I done everything to try to avoid proceedings?’