Examples might include a prang between two cars; an unpaid bill; a computer bought over the Internet that never worked; a rental deposit which the landlord refused to return at the end of the tenancy. These are the type of disputes which often lead to the county court and are ideal to be decided there as ‘small claims’.
To qualify as a small claim the case must usually involve no more than £5,000 and be capable of being decided at a hearing lasting no longer than one day. District Judge Stephen Gold, who has presided over small claims cases for some 17 years, points out that the procedure applied to ‘small claims’ mirrors that used for the higher value and more complicated cases dealt with by the county courts. But he points out that the process is ‘simpler and the more informal hearing of a contested case is likely to take place within just a couple of months of the case being started’. ‘Small claims are designed for people and businesses which do not intend to use a lawyer but lawyers may be involved, if that is wanted by either or both of the parties,’ he says.
A claim may have the appearance of a small claim but it does not officially become a small claim until it is ‘allocated’ to the small claims track [HL]. This will happen after the defendant has put in his defence and the claimant and defendant have returned to the court what are known as ‘allocation questionnaires’. There could be – but this is the exception rather than the rule – an interim hearing before the allocation stage. For example, the claim may appear on paper to be hopeless and one that should never have been started. In that situation, the defendant might decide to ask the judge to dismiss the claim without it going to a full hearing or a judge may decide to investigate whether the claim should be brought to an early end. If there is an interim hearing at which a lawyer represents the defendant and the judge decides at that hearing to end the case there and then, the claimant could well be ordered to pay the defendant’s legal costs relating to the whole case. The claimant would not have the protection of the small claims limited costs regime because that can only apply if the case has been allocated to the small claims track.
In exceptional circumstance – for example, a case which involves difficult points of law or is likely to involve a hearing which will last longer than one day – the judge may decide not to allocate the case to the small claims track even if the dispute is for a value of no more than £5,000. Again, that would mean that the ordinary costs rules in civil proceedings would apply and neither side would have the protection of the small claims regime.
Thanks to District Judge Stephen Gold, who has presided over the small claims track for some 17 years, for allowing us to use his guide to the small claims process.