A sole trader’s small claims story

How one photographer put his non-paying customers in the picture over their debts

As a Beatles tour guide based in Liverpool, Phil Coppell is usually paid cash after each Magical Mystery Tour. But as a self-employed press and commercial photographer (a job which is still a business sideline) he used small claims procedures “with frightening regularity”.

“Small claims is wonderful because it’s just so easy,” the sole trader points out. “I’d just fill in the form, and clip to the form copies of the invoices and the reminders saying I must be paid within seven days or I would take legal action. Then I’d pay the fee, and wait for the money they owed me.”

One customer ran a large snooker club in Southport, and drove a gleaming Jaguar. When Phil, 52, invoiced him for a modest £30, the man ignored the invoice. Calls to the customer were blocked by his secretary, and the man did not respond either to letters or to Phil’s small claims proceedings.

Failing to respond meant that judgement automatically went against the man, and Phil sent in the bailiffs. They turned up to seize £178 worth of goods, including the various other court fees Phil had paid to enforce judgement. The man handed them the sum in cash, and rang Phil to snarl, “You’ll never work for me again.” “I wouldn’t want to,” says Phil cheerfully.

Another client disputed the claim, saying that Phil’s work was inadequate. The judge called Phil and the defendant together to ask, “If his work was poor, why did you use him 10 times?” Phil won the case.

Only once has the small claims process failed to procure payment: the client had gone bankrupt and disappeared. “I just became one of many unsecured creditors,” says Phil. “But that was a one-off, and I would advise anybody with a problem to use small claims. If a small business does not receive payment, then I recommend taking the matter to the county court.”

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