Small claims procedure in the County Court
What to expect when you get there
You may have to attend a hearing, with a solicitor or lay representative to help if you prefer. The judge gives his judgement after hearing both sides, and if you win the defendant will be ordered to pay the disputed sum along with the cost of issuing the claim, and something towards your travelling expenses and loss of earnings, and those of witnesses.
It is in the defendant’s interests to pay promptly, because if they do not pay within 28 days a county court judgement against their name will make it difficult for them to get credit – including loans and mortgages – in the future.
Ironically, it is the period after judgement is made that causes most discontent. “A lot of people don’t realise that they could have to take steps afterwards to enforce it,” says Citizens Advice Bureau social policy officer Alison Green. “You will incur further costs, and if at the end of the day the defendant has no money to pay you could end up with nothing.”
You can apply to the court for the judgement to be enforced, and pay a further fee. You can ask for an oral examination of the defendant, who will be given chances to explain his non-payment to the court, but this can be time-consuming. Or you can opt to send bailiffs in to seize money or assets to the value of the sum owed – in practice, this means seizing goods of many times the amount owed, since second-hand goods are sold cheaply.
You could also apply for a charging order, securing the debt by attaching it to the debtor’s land or property. “You can turn an insignificant debt into a serious one by attaching it to their property, which can become very serious if you apply for an order to sell the house,” says Business Debtline organiser Cheryl Daniels.
You could also apply for an attachment of earnings, making an employer deduct regular sums from the defendant’s salary, or a garnishee order to freeze the defendant’s bank account.
Some argue that all means of enforcing judgement take too long. “In the case of business debts, it makes sense for the court to take a harsher view and say the sum needs to be paid on a shorter timescale,” argues Daniels. “If you’re owed £500 and are paid at £1 a month, that’s 500 months which is simply ludicrous.”
Others emphasise that small claims is only a last resort, and that businesses should tighten up their credit control first. The DTI publication ‘The Better Payment Practice Guide’ has some good tips. “Small businesses tend to pursue sales while failing to watch credit control,” says Barron at Debtline.
“But for every £50 you don’t get paid, you’ve got to chase sales so much more vigorously, especially if you’re working on a small profit margin. If there’s any doubt about whether to extend credit, then consider credit insurance to insure individual invoices.”
Like all business dealings, nothing is risk-free. But the small claims process is specifically designed to carry low risks in terms of your time and money, and in most cases the mere mention of the county courts is enough to ensure that money owed to you will arrive within days. So when you’ve tried everything else, don’t write it off – claim it.
It is in the defendant’s interests to pay promptly, because if they do not pay within 28 days a county court judgement against their name will make it difficult for them to get credit.