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028 9024 5640: Housing & Debt Helpline for Northern Ireland

ADVISER: Taking a case to Small Claims Court

The mere mention of court can often scare a client and Small Claims Court is no exception.  While going to court is worrying to clients, it can also strike fear into the heart of an inexperienced adviser.  Small Claims Court is supposed to be a simpler form of court procedure that is quick and easy to use, but it’s still important that advisers are aware of the formalities that need to observed.

What is Small Claims Court?

The Small Claims Court can deal with claims up to a value of £3,000. Clients don’t need a solicitor or barrister at Small Claims Court.  They can file all the paperwork and present the case by themselves.  But, getting help from an experienced adviser can really take the pressure off a vulnerable client and can make a real difference to the outcome of the case.

Where should you initiate your claim?

There are 7 County Court Divisions in Northern Ireland.  You can initiate your small claim in any division where the applicant (your client) or the respondent (the person you are suing) lives or carries out his or her business.

Generally, Small Claims Court will deal with claims for less than £3000.  However, the court can’t deal with certain types of claims, e.g. Personal Injury Claims. 

A judge at Small Claims may decide that your client’s case is too complicated for Small Claims and can direct that the case be heard by a different court.  If this happens, you should explain to your client that the legal costs associated with taking court action could increase massively.  Your client may want to speak to a solicitor at this point to work out the costs of going to court.

Completing the claim form

You’ll need to fill in Form 125 to start the claim.  This is a basic form and is available from your local court.  You can also complete the form online and download a step-by-step guide on completing the form from the NI Court Service website. 

When you're completing the form, state the facts of the case simply and clearly.  You need to explain how much money your client is claiming for and break this down into

  • the claim amount,
  • the interest, if any, that the client is owed on this amount and
  • the court fee the client has paid. 

Bring the completed form, 2 further copies of the completed form, the client’s evidence and the application fee to a civil processing centre.  Fees for using the Small Claims Court range from £30 to £100.  Clients who are in receipt of certain benefits may be exempt from this fee.

Processing the claim

When the court receives the form, court staff will check if the claim is liquidated or unliquidated.  A liquidated claim is one that is asking for a set amount of money, such as one month's rent.  An unliquidated claim is one where an estimated value is asked for, such as damage to a property.  

Staff will check that the form has been completed correctly and that the correct fee is enclosed.  If everything is in order, court staff will send your client an Applicant’s Information Pack, which explains what the client has to do to get a court decree if the person she or he is suing fails to respond by a specified date. 

A copy of the form, a draft notice of dispute and draft acceptance of liability will be sent to the respondent by first class recorded post.

What happens at a Small Claims Court hearing?

Some cases are never heard in front of a judge because both parties have been able to negotiate a settlement through correspondence. However, if your case does proceed to hearing, a particular format is followed.

Your case will be included in a list of other Small Claims scheduled for hearing. The Judge will invite everyone involved in the day’s Small Claims session for a “callover” of the cases that morning. During this time, the judge will explain the process for the day. The judge will ask that the parties attempt to resolve the matter themselves in consultation rooms in the court, in order to avoid a hearing. The judge explains that this is to avoid the issuing of unnecessary Decrees.  A decree issued at Small Claims Court is a County Court Judgment and will have a serious effect on a person’s credit score. 

If you don’t resolve the matter during these negotiations, the matter will proceed to hearing where the judge will sit as an Arbitrator, unrobed. The strict rules of evidence do not apply and the judge, with the consent of the parties, may decide the case on the basis of statements and documents submitted by the parties.

The judge should make unrepresented appellants or respondents aware of their power to call witnesses.  You will be allowed to make representations on your client’s behalf.

Decisions that the court can make

After both parties have had a chance to speak, the judge will usually make a decision based on the facts of the case.  The court can decide that your client’s claim was successful and issue a decree requiring that the other party pay your client an amount, decided by the judge, and the court fee.

The court may dismiss your client’s claim, in which case he or she won't get the court fee back.  The judge could also find in favour of the other person if they issued a counterclaim and your client may be ordered to pay money to this person, including the cost of their court fees.

The judge’s decision is subject to the right of appeal  on a question of law. The Notice of Appeal must be issued within within 21days from the date of the Order and the grounds relied upon must be stated.

A district judge has very limited discretion to award legal costs.  The judge will usually ask that the parties bear their own costs, such as those incurred by witnesses, unless the judge can establish unreasonable conduct by one of the parties.

Proper case preparation is essential

Since Small Claims can often be decided based on the paperwork provided to the judge, it’s essential that you present the best possible case for your client.  If you’re not sure how to do this, contact us to join the waiting list for our next course on using the small claims court. 

Our training courses are useful for any adviser who wants to learn more about assisting a client with a Small Claim or anyone wanting to brush up on their representation skills.  The course will normally cover:

  • the type of cases that can be heard at Small Claims Court
  • the procedures that must be followed
  • how to best present your case in court
  • how to structure your case submissions and notices in line with county court rules and procedures
  • how to have the judgment enforced.

 

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