The small claims court is the low-hassle way to take legal action for up to £10,000 (in England and Wales, it's less elsewhere) against a company or individual you feel has wronged you.
Whether you're lumbered with faulty goods a shop won't refund or at a standoff with a builder who's botched your bathroom, the process is designed to let you make a simple complaint online without a lawyer. This guide tells you how to make a small claim, whether it's the best course of action, how to minimise your costs (it's not free) and how best to put your case forward to max your chance of winning.
While every effort's been made to ensure this article's accuracy, it doesn't constitute legal advice tailored to your individual circumstances. We can't assume responsibility and don't accept liability for any damage or loss which may arise as a result of your reliance upon it.
This is the first incarnation of this guide. Please suggest any changes or questions in the Small claims court discussion.
What is a small claim?
There isn't such a thing as the "small claims court". It's actually just a procedure that some more simple cases (the rough rule is those that'd take less than a day) for under £10,000 go through.
The big advantages are you can apply online, they try to keep it as informal as possible and you don't need a lawyer (there's not a wig in sight). Plus some cases go undefended, which means you simply win without doing anything. Plus if you lose, any costs awarded against you are usually limited.
Small claims need-to-knows
Going to court should be a last resort
Court action shouldn't be your first attempt to get redress. You must be able to show that you have tried to settle a claim before taking court action - if you can't, the court may penalise you.
The court will expect you to have already made your claim in writing, giving the other person a reasonable amount of time to reply (you should specify a time limit in your complaint letter). You should also warn them that you'll take court action if they fail to reply within the given time. You never know, just saying this may be the kick up the bum they need to cough up.
Don't rule out mediation
You may feel like you want your day in court, but donít rule out mediation which is likely to be offered to you once you are in the small claims process. If both sides agree to using mediation then youíll be contacted by the Small Claims Mediation Service, which deals with monetary claims under £10,000 that are already going through the courts.
Thereís no charge for this as itís covered by your initial fees. As most cases are dealt with by telephone, they save the time and the expense of having to go to court, meaning that the court will often encourage you to take this approach.
You can't guarantee a case goes to the small claims court
You canít demand to go to the small claims court. There's a small risk the judge will say your case can't be dealt with as a small claim because it's too complex, or the hearing will take longer than a day. So be prepared.
Consider an ombudsman or watchdog instead
Making a small claim should always be the last resort, so consider taking your complaint to an ombudsman or watchdog, which work to protect consumers, first. Ombudsmen are totally free so you can't have any costs awarded against you, meaning you have nothing to lose. As well as looking at the legal points, an ombudsman will also consider good industry practice, giving you a better chance at success.
- Ombudsmen, and organisations with similar remits, help with individual complaints, though you must try to sort it by yourself with the company first.
- Watchdogs do not usually have the power to force action on a company or industry or to solve individual complaints. Yet they do encourage consumers to submit complaints, so they can spot areas that may need further investigation.
See the How To Complain guide for the full list of ombudsmen, trade associations, consumer organisations, Government bodies and watchdogs you might complain to instead of going to court.
Keep the claim below £10,000 in England and Wales (other limits elsewhere)
If your claim's for a larger amount, you've less chance of being in small claims, which is by far the easiest way to claim. If you're just above the limit, consider lowering the asking amount down to £10,000 (even if your earlier letters demanded more).
For claims beyond the new £10,000 limit (it used to be £5,000) you're likely to end up in what's called the 'fast track' or the 'multi-track' system, which is beyond the scope of this guide. This is likely to be a more formal hearing, and it's likely that you will want to take legal advice before pursuing such a claim.
See the HM Courts & Tribunals Service for more information on larger claims, and how to find your local court.
In Scotland and Northern Ireland the small claims maximum is £3,000. Across the rest of Europe, it's Ä2,000 using the European small claims procedure (see the European Consumer Centre for more).
You don't need a lawyer
In all but the most complicated cases, you shouldn't need the help of a lawyer. The small claims system is designed with this in mind. Free sources of help such as Citizens Advice Bureaux are listed in the How To Complain guide if you do need assistance.
You can claim for things that have happened in the last six years (five in Scotland)
The claim must be started (and that means a claim form must be issued and not simply a letter of complaint sent) within what's called the 'limitation period' (generally six years from when your right to make a claim arose in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and five years in Scotland).
You could win by default
If the person or company you are lodging your claim against doesn't reply to your claim within 14 days, you can ask the court for a 'judgment by default'. If this happens, then you may win the case by default. Don't rely on this happening however, just be aware that it is an option.
If you claim a fixed amount and are in a position to request a default judgment, then it will be for the amount you claimed. However, if you claim a completely inflated amount, then you will put the person or company in a stronger position to ask the court to set the judgment aside.
If they haven't got the money, suing won't help
Make sure you check that the shop or individual has the money to cough up first. If not, taking your claim to the court will be a waste of time.
If it's been a particularly bad battle and the business or individual hasn't budged an inch throughout your complaint, it's worth taking a step back to consider if they'll ever pay up. Unfortunately, even if you win in court, this still doesn't mean you're guaranteed the cash.
When it comes to companies, a small percentage of cowboy firms will do all they can to avoid paying out, even if you get the bailiffs on them. One way to check a company's history is to run a judgment search at the Registry Trust. It costs from £4 and it may help you decide if it's worth carrying on your claim.
You won't necessarily get the amount you've asked for - even if you win
If you do win, don't forget that the money that might be awarded by the judge won't necessarily be as much as you originally claimed for.
You will be awarded what you legally deserve, which may be what you claimed or less. The general object of compensation is to put you in the same position, moneywise, in which you would have been, had the person or company not acted in the way about which you are complaining. It isn't to make a profit out of it.
Is your claim genuine?
Before doing anything else, step back and think about whether you have a genuine claim. If your claim gets to court the judge will be looking for the accuracy of your claim and more importantly whether or not you're telling porkies - including embellishments. If the judge finds that you are, then you're not going to win, so be honest with yourself.
Ask yourself the questions:
- Have I been genuinely wronged?
- Can I afford the process?
- Is it worth it?
If the answer to all three of these is "yes", then, and only then, should you consider starting the small claim process. But before you do, check the How to Complain guide - have you been through all the stages of complaining in there first?
I am not normally great with forms, should I do this?
Be realistic. If you usually get sweaty palms just thinking about filling out a form, then this probably isn't going to be a good option for you.
Does this take a lot of time?
If you're a busy person that thinks this is going to be a quick solution, then think again. You need to consider both the time it will take to put together all the information for your claim, and then the time you will have to take out of your schedule to attend the hearing.
What can I make claims for?
You can make a claim to the small claims court for most breach of contract claims (but don't forget that winning is a different matter), but it will be judged based on the law.
The process is the same whether you are suing an individual or a company. So whether you are claiming compensation for a faulty washing machine from a well-known company, or some work done by an independent cowboy builder you wish your mate hadn't recommended, you could end up in the small claims court.
Will it work?
Some MSE forumites have had success with their small claims. In most cases the companies involved coughed up before it even got to the hearing stage, so it may just be worth a go.
'I got fed up and put in a claim'
"SportsDirect.com didn't refund me for the postage for returning goods they incorrectly sent me. The day after lodging the claim I got an email from them. I think some of these companies need a reminder that not all customers roll over if they give bad service."Johnkg - October 2012
'Anyone in a similar position should not hesitate'
"I have now been refunded outstanding money from JA Bathrooms. I ordered and paid for goods in December 2011 and after many confrontations took out a small claims action with Money Claims On Line. The small claims action was contested a day after the cut-off date and so judgment was awarded in my favour. I finally received payment in two instalments from the court (cleared funds from JA) for my initial outlay plus court and bailiffs' costs. It can take time, but anyone in a similar position should not hesitate in applying [to the small claims court]."Conway1 - April 2013
Have you tried to take poor or faulty goods back to to the shop only to have your complaint dismissed? Don't forget that you are a consumer and you have rights, whether you have bought goods or services. Know your Consumer Rights before you go any further with your small claim.
Once you know your rights, if you want to push your complaint to the max before threatening to use the small claims court, check out the How to Complain guide which, will give you step-by-step information on how to fight for your rights.
If it's a financial services company you're having problems with you can complain through the Financial Ombudsman Service. You have nothing to lose by going to the Ombudsman - it's free, so even if the Ombudsman rules against you, you won't be any worse off than if you hadn't complained. Go to Your Financial Rights for how to complain, get help and most importantly, compensation.
Won a case? Report your small claims court experiences in the
Small claims court discussion.
What are the most common types of small claims?
The usual claims allocated to the small claims process include:
- Compensation for faulty services provided by builders, dry cleaners, garages, etc.
- Compensation for faulty goods, for example, televisions or washing machines which go wrong.
- Disputes between landlords and tenants, for example, rent arrears or compensation for not doing repairs.
- Tenants claiming against landlords for repairs or other work to be carried out where the cost of the work is £1,000 or less.
- Wages owed (eg, freelancers not being paid), or money in lieu of notice.
PPI reclaiming? Some use small claims, though we think the Financial Ombudsman is safer. See Reclaim PPI for Free.
Flight delay reclaiming? Court isnít always necessary, see the Flight Delay Compensation guide.
Is there anything you can't sue for in small claims?
You can't sue for personal injury claims for more than £1,000, or claims by tenants of residential premises against their landlords where the cost of repairs is estimated at more than £1,000.
There are some claims which the usual small claims court won't normally deal with, even if the claim for damages is low. One example of this is intellectual property claims.
If you have an intellectual property (IP) claim, then you will find yourself in the Patent County Courtís (PCC) small claims track instead. The limit here has also been raised from £5,000 to £10,000.
Not sure if this is you? The main kinds of claim in the Patent County Court which go through the small claims track deal with disputes over:
- Trade marks (UK and Community-registered trademarks)
- Passing off (others passing off your work as their own)
- Unregistered design right (UK and Community-unregistered design right)
Anything to do with patents, registered designs (including Community-registered designs) and plant varieties can't be made as an IP claim.
Much of the process outlined in the rest of this small claims guide also applies for IP claims. However, all claims in the PCC are automatically allocated to the multi-track unless you say you want it to be part of the small claims track, so ensure this is in your particular of claims form.
What about cases outside the UK?
You can't claim online if the defendant's address is outside England and Wales. Sometimes you'll need the court's permission to serve the claim form.
There are special procedural rules that have to be followed and the position can sometimes be a little complicated so you may need to seek guidance from the court.
There is a special procedure for European cross-border claims (eg, you're shunted at traffic lights in Rome and want to claim here). The claim limit is Ä2,000 using the European small claims procedure (see the European Consumer Centre for more).
There is a standard claim form which you can issue through the county court. If you win, they'll be ordered to pay your costs, which may include translation fees.
In Scotland and Northern Ireland the small claims maximum is £3,000.
How much will it cost?
Now the all-important question - how much money is this going to cost me? Take a look at the financials below before you think about making a small claim.
The cost of filing a case
The more you claim, the more you pay in fees. If you win, you get the fees back. If you lose, you don't - so be realistic with your initial claim.
If you win your case, you'll get the court fees back
|£25 - £210||
Initial claim fee - to start your claim (when done online).
Court allocation fee - to get the claim to the court (if claim is over £1,500).
|£25 - £325||
Hearing fee - paid if and when your case gets to court (when done online).
On benefits or a low income?
If you're on benefits or have a low income, you may qualify for remission of the fees - this is just a fancy way of saying that you won't have to pay the fees. But this won't stop the judge making an order that you pay the other side's expenses if you lose.
Can I claim expenses if I win?
If you win your case, you'll get the court fees back as well as the claim, and you can ask for certain expenses.
If you win, you can't charge fees for any legal advice to the defendant. So if you pay for legal advice, you're unlikely to get it back. This is why most claimants deal with a small claim without the help of a solicitor.
Expenses can be awarded against you if you lose
You shouldn't have the other party's lawyer's fees awarded against you - but you could find yourself paying certain expenses of theirs if you lose, and you won't get the court fees back. You'll have to pay within 14 days of the hearing, but you can ask for more time to pay the costs and anything else by instalments once the court has seen full details of your income, expenses, assets and liabilities. You could end up paying:
For loss of earnings or leave to attend a hearing, plus reasonable travelling expenses for each of the other side and any necessary witnesses they take along to court.
If the judge gave them permission to get evidence from an expert, eg, having to get an expert to inspect a sofa for a fault.
Step-by-step help for making a small claim
Donít panic, this wonít end up like an episode of Judge John Deed. You donít even have to take an oath. But you will need to state that what you have put down is true, and telling porkies could land you in trouble. In fact, you might never even get all the way to the court.
Making a small claim is often just a case of filling in a claim form online or sending one to the court (although it's cheaper online). Sometimes, just the act of doing this will mean a company settles (assuming youíve got a decent case).
1: Prepare the case
It's important to prepare the case carefully. Don't forget the court has to be convinced by what you're saying.
Want the advice of a man in the know?
Judge Stephen Gold, a district judge at Kingston-Upon-Thames County Court, says:
ďJust because it is a small claim, it doesnít mean that you can get away with a half-baked case. The same law applies for small claims as applies to a hefty claim in the High Court.Ē
Set your notes about the case in date order.
Itís very useful to note down what the case is; for example, the points to make, the documents which are relevant, and what they prove. A list of all documents, and other evidence is useful to make sure nothing is forgotten.
Sort out damaged or faulty goods to show/take as evidence.
This could include clothes ruined by a washing machine, shoes, etc. If this is not possible, photographs could be used instead.
Evidence of expenses should be prepared and any receipts taken along. All letters (and any other relevant documents, including photographs) about the case should be ready for the hearing.
Take witnesses (if you have them) with you.
In many cases, the claimant and the defendant may be the only witnesses. If you have other witnesses who back up important parts of your evidence which the other side contests, then, it's really important they attend the final hearing with you.
"If you are relying on witnesses to back up your case, then take them with you. It is normally not good enough if there is a contest on the facts to produce a witness statement and not to produce a witness who made it. After all, the judge can't question and the other side can't cross-examine a piece of paper. Keep focused on the important issues and donít get side tracked. You will get your chance to question the other side and any witnesses they may have, so it is a good idea to think through before the hearing some questions to put to them which could expose or highlight the weaknesses in what they are saying."Judge Stephen Gold
What if my witness can't get time off?
If a witness has difficulty getting time off work, it may be helpful to serve a witness summons which they can show to their boss. The court can explain how to do this.
If you wish to use an expert witness, you must get the permission of the court first. The court may well order that the expert is instructed jointly with the other party in the case and that the expert's fee is initially shared by each side.
2: Fill out the claim form
The real meat of your claim involves filling in a form called a Particulars of Claim (Statement of Claim in Scotland). This is a statement telling your side of the story. You need to include full details of what you're claiming for and why.
+ What will the form ask me?
The claim form will ask you for both yours and the defendant's details and how much is being claimed. If there's not enough room, use a separate sheet of paper and attach it.
+ How much time do I have?
Donít worry if you have a lot of info and are running out of time, you can send the particulars of claim to the defendant separately (but no later than 14 days after the claim form).
+ Can I claim interest?
You may be able to collect interest on your claim (there are guidance notes on the claim form to help with this), but make sure this is included in the amount that youíre claiming for on the form.
+ I have some other documents that are relevant, what do I do?
In some circumstances, additional documents need to be attached to the particulars of claim. For example, if the claim is based on a written agreement (such as an agreement to purchase goods or services), a copy of the agreement should be attached to the statement of claim.
The right online claim depends on your location:
In England and Wales
Use the Moneyclaim website. There's a starting fee of between £25 and £210, depending on the size of your claim, which can be paid by a credit or debit card. The court is likely to order that this fee is refunded to you by the other side if you win, but not if you lose.
If you don't have plastic to pay on, get the paperwork (form N1) to start the claim form from your local county court and pay there, it's the same price. Fees may be waived if you're on benefits (see the EX160 Do You Have To Pay Fees? leaflet on the HM Courts Service website).
In Northern Ireland
Use the Northern Ireland Courts online service.
3: Start court action
You should send or take two copies of the claim form to the court where you want to start court action (any money claim must be issued at the County Court Money Claims Centre, other cases can be issued in the local county court), and make sure you keep an extra copy for your own records. You must also take or send the court fee.
The court will then stamp the claim form and in most cases serve it on the defendant. It will give you a document with the case number on it (called a notice of issue). If you want to serve it yourself, you can ask the court to give it back to you once it has been stamped.
My claim ISN'T being defended
Result! You have scared them enough into paying you the money without having to take it to court. But there still might be a little bit of work to be done.
If they can pay the money immediately, thatís great, this should be sent directly to you. If they tell you they need time, you will need to come to some sort of arrangement, but itís down to the defendant to fill out the paperwork this time (they will need to send a form to the court requesting Ďjudgment on admissioní). If they donít stick to this arrangement, you can take legal action against them forcing them to pay.
If you don't accept their offer, you have to give your reasons why. A court official will decide what a reasonable arrangement should be.
The court will send both parties an order for payment. If youíre not happy, you should write to the court giving your reasons and you must send a copy of the letter to the defendant. A judge will then decide what is reasonable for the defendant to pay. If the defendant does not keep to the arrangement, again you can take enforcement action.
My claim IS being defended
It's game on! If the defendant decides to defend your claim, they have 14 days to respond. When their defence is returned to the court, you'll be sent a directions questionnaire which must be returned no later than the date specified on it. The court will use the information given on the directions questionnaire to decide which track the case will be allocated to.
How will I know if I'm going to court?
If the court decides to allocate the case to the small claims track, both you and the defendant will be sent a notice of allocation which will tell you what you need to do to prepare for the final hearing (you might, for example, be asked to send copies of all documents you intend to use to the court, as well as to the other party, at least 14 days before the hearing is due to take place).
Make sure you follow these directions. If not, the case could be postponed and you might have to pay all the costs of the case.
The notice of allocation will usually specify the time, date and place where the hearing will take place and how much time has been allowed for it.
Read all the documents
"Once the case has started, make sure you read the documents you get from the court, such as the directions. These will probably tell you to come up with written statements of the evidence of yourself, plus any witnesses who can back up important parts of your evidence which are likely to be challenged by the other side and to send them to the court and the other side a specified period before the hearing. Don't fall into the trap of simply taking note of the hearing date and nothing else."Judge Stephen Gold
What if I can't make the court date?
If you want to attend the hearing but canít, you can write to the court and apply for a later date to be set. But be warned, saying it clashes with a hair appointment wonít cut it and it will (literally) cost you.
But if the cost of getting to the court hearing is higher than the claim merits, you can write to the court (the letter must arrive to both the court and the defendant no later than seven days before the hearing date) asking them to deal with the claim in your absence.
I haven't been set a hearing date, why not?
Sometimes the court wonít set a final hearing date at the allocation stage. It could instead propose that the claim is dealt with without a hearing. If the parties do not object, the case will be decided on the papers only. If the parties do not reply by the date given, the judge may treat the lack of reply as consent.
A preliminary hearing could be held instead if the claim requires special directions which the judge wants to explain to the parties personally, or where the judge feels that you (or the defendant) have no real prospect of succeeding and wants to sort out the claim as soon as possible to save everyone time and expense, or if the papers do not show any reasonable grounds for bringing the claim. A preliminary hearing, therefore, could become a final hearing where the matter is decided once and for all.
What happens at court?
At court is where you present your case. It's important that you keep calm and state your case in a rational manner so that the judge has the chance to hear why you feel you have been wronged, and what redress you're seeking and why.
Though it might seem intimidating, you're not going to be watched by a jury of 12, the world's media, court officials and members of the public taking an interest.
This isn't a criminal trial; it's likely to be held in a small room with just the judge and clerical staff, plus you and the defendant.
Donít be nervous
"Going to court might be an intimidating experience for many, but there is nothing to fear. More often than not small claims are heard in a room which resembles an office (not the sort of courtroom you see on TV) and the judge will do all they can to try to put you at ease."Judge Stephen Gold
Go through the detail of the case, say what methods you have already tried to sort out the case. The more effort you've made before going to court, the more the judge can see that you've not just applied to court on a whim.
It's also important that you don't get angry. It's likely that if you've reached a small claims hearing that you're frustrated beyond belief at not being able to get your money back from the shop/tradesperson, but the judge won't look more favourably on you if you're visibly angry. State the facts of your case calmly, and wait for the judge to decide...
Keep your cool
"Donít be tempted to get into any sort of argument with the defendant in front of the judge. The party with the louder voice doesn't necessarily have the stronger case."Judge Stephen Gold
When do I find out if I've won?
After the hearing the court will send you a letter giving you its decision. If you're not happy with the judge's decision you can appeal against it, but only if the court made a mistake in law or there was a serious irregularity in the proceedings. You will need a judge's permission to appeal.
If you want permission to appeal, you must request it when you lose and, if it is refused, re-request it in the notice of appeal which must be received by the court within 21 days from the date of the decision, unless the court has given a different time limit.
I won in court but I still haven't got the money I'm owed, what do I do?
After youíve been to court and won you may still have to Ďenforce a judgementí to get the money youíre owed. Youíll need to go back to the same court and it will cost you money.
Ordering someone to attend court costs £50, and the other steps cost a whopping £100 each, so itís worth working out what the person or business can afford to pay.
If the money is owed by an individual you can ask the court to order a debtor to attend to provide evidence of their income or spending. If itís a business you can ask for an officer from the company to attend court to give details of the account. You can then decide what you need to do to get your money. You have four options:
Send bailiffs to collect payment
You can ask the court to use bailiffs to collect the money, by either filling in a†warrant of execution form or using Money Claim Online. The bailiff will ask for payment within seven days and if the debt isnít paid, theyíll will visit the personís home or business, to see if anything could be sold to pay the debt.
Get money deducted from wages
You can ask the court to send an order to the personís employer, to take money from wages to pay the debt. To do this youíll need to fill in an†attachment of earnings order.
Freeze assets or money in an account
The court can freeze money in the personís bank or building society account (or in a business account). To do this youíll need to fill in a†third party debt order. The court will decide if money from the account can be used to pay the debt.
Charge the personís land or property
You can ask the court to charge the personís or companyís land or property. To do this youíll need to fill in a†charging order. If the land or property is sold, they must pay this charge before they get their money.
Thinking of making a small claim? Share your experiences/complaints in the Small claims court forum discussion.