There can’t be many of us who haven’t been ripped off at some time or other.
From stores that refuse to refund faulty goods, to the builder that botches your extension, and the used car dealer who lands you with a clapped-out rust bucket.
Many Streetwise readers have ended up in these situations and got nowhere trying to resolve the dispute.
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.
In reality, there’s no such thing as a small claims court. It’s a County Court procedure that deals with simple claims for under £10,000.
But as a number of readers have discovered, going to law doesn’t always equal justice, and the outcome can be uncertain.
Regular Stamshaw reader Stacy Slater was stressed to breaking point when she took on a Portsmouth used car dealer who sold her a dodgy Fiat Punto.
After three months of problems with the £2,000 car, and forking out almost another £700 on essential repairs, she got fed up being patronised and ignored.
As a result, she sued for a refund.
What followed was a living nightmare.
‘I was so angry about being sold a heap of junk, but nothing prepared me for the court experience,’ she said.
‘In total, I ended up going to court on five occasions. The dealer either didn’t turn up, or ignored court orders, and on one occasion the court was double booked.
‘On the final court appearance, although I won, it turned out to be a pyrrhic victory. 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 to send in the bailiffs at extra cost, and there’s no guarantee they’ll recover my money as they can’t make the dealer 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 legal costs and the money I’d lost.
‘I ended up worse off attending the court and paying the allocation and hearing fees.’
Stacy is not alone.
The prospect of settling a dispute without lawyers in a friendly environment seems like good news.
But, as Portchester couple Antonia Wood and Ken Morgan discovered to their cost, it can be a double-edged sword and only increase the rancour between the parties.
They became locked in a bitter battle with a kitchen makeover firm when they claim the boss refused to accept their complaint about missing parts and defective sub-standard appliances.
After they withheld £500 from the final bill, the dispute escalated. Then, out of the blue, they learned he’d started proceedings to try to compel them into paying up.
The threat of bailiffs turning up on the doorstep was only removed after Streetwise advised them how to issue a counter-claim.
But Streetwise has also received complimentary letters from satisfied small claims court users.
Reader Dave Parkyn, from Havant, whose dispute with a landlord refusing to return his deposit on a rented flat wound up in the 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.
Although the small claims track in the County Court is designed to serve as a low-cost user-friendly process, the cost of access to justice has risen dramatically in recent years, and the emotion and stress on claimants can be very corrosive.
Research by Citizens’ Advice about people’s experience of going to law in the small claims court was daunting.
Many of 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.
Some, like Stacy, quickly learned that winning a court judgement didn’t mean they were automatically going to get paid, or wouldn’t be left out of pocket.
A report by IFF Research for Consumer Focus, a former 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.
Streetwise always advises readers who seek advice and believe they have a genuine grievance to first consider the alternatives.
Taking a case to court means a judge will want to check the factual accuracy of the claim, and whether it has been embellished or some porkies have crept into the narrative.
People who use the small claims process to settle a dispute without the help of expensive layers point out that the key is always to be well-organised and able to present facts in a logical order.
Key questions to ask before you go to law include these ...
- Do you have a good chance of winning?
- If you win, can your opponent pay and is it worth all the time and money?
- Have you done everything to avoid proceedings?
If the answer is ‘no’ to any of these questions, all is not lost. Consider taking the claim to a free ombudsman, watchdog, or an alternative dispute resolution service.
A full list can be obtained from your local Citizens’ Advice service or by going online to sites like MoneySaving Expert.com at:https://www.moneysavingexpert.com/reclaim/small-claims-court
Stacy told Streetwise that, had she known about The News fighting her corner, it would have been her first port of call.
She said: ‘I’ve always been a bit wary of press publicity but, after a friend told me of your successful track record fighting for consumer rights, I’ll know where to come for help with any dispute next time around.’