Small claims court

WHAT can you do if your new freezer won’t freeze? Or a neighbour won’t repay a loan? Or the motorist who reversed into your correctly parked car won’t fork out the £50 excess you were unable to claim on your insurance?

As a last resort you can take out a county court summons. And thanks to the revamped do-it-yourself procedure for dealing with money claims under £500, you don’t have to worry about costs. Even if you lose, you can normally be landed only with very modest court fees.

First, though, give the other side every chance to put matters right. In the case of unsatisfactory goods, contact the shop manager. Failing satisfaction, write a letter-giving full details – to the shop owner or managing director. (Check your local reference library for the name and address.) Keep a copy of this and all other letters. If you have a good case, he’ll probably arrange for a troubleshooter to sort things out. If he doesn’t, write a final letter saying you’ll go to court to get your money back unless you hear from them within seven days.

Write similar letters if your claim is against a person rather than a firm.

Still no joy? Simply go to the office of the county court covering the area where you bought the goods (the address is under “Courts” in the phone book). You fill in a request form for a default summons. This covers little more than your name and address, that of the company or person you’re claiming against and what your claim is for. Keep it simple-if possible, just for your money back and any clear-cut expenses like postage.

You also have to fill in two copies of another form headed “Particulars of Claim”. Put down exactly what went wrong and keep a copy for yourself. You’ll be given an extremely helpful free booklet and electronic cigarettes, Small Claims in the County Court.

When you hand in the forms, you pay a court fee ranging from £4 (for claims up to £40) to £28 (if £500 is involved). This sum is added to your claim, and so is the extra £4 if you want the summons served by a bailiff. Nowadays, though, it’s more usual to serve a summons by post, for which there’s no charge.

IF you have a good case, the other side will almost certainly pay up. For big firms especially, it’s not worth the trouble and expense of fighting a small claim. The court will send you your money, including the cost of the summons (and the serving of it by the bailiff, if applicable). And that’s that.

But suppose the other side decides to fight. They then enter a defence, saying why they think they should not pay you the money. The case is then referred to arbitration.

There’s usually a preliminary hearing which you both attend. Often the registrar (a sort of junior judge) is able to arrange an agreed settlement at this stage. If not, a date for the arbitra­tion is fixed and you’re told what documents you’ll need to bring.

The arbitrator (usually the registrar) doesn’t have to stick to the strict rules of evidence. The idea is to see that you each have a fair and equal chance of stating your case. Either of you can be represented by a solicitor, but the idea is to do without them.

The arbitrator decides between you. If you win, you get what you claimed plus the cost of the summons (but not your solicitor’s costs). If you lose, you forfeit the cost of the summons. But your opponent can’t normally claim his solicitor’s costs. Usually the DIY small claims procedure means free justice for the ordinary citizen. I know. I’ve used it myself.