The progression of your Case through the Court system.
The Small Claims process starts with a visit to the Money Claim Online (MCOL) website to Make your Claim (see Planning/Starting Court Action). After submission, your Claim is manually approved by the Court Office which then generates a letter to the defendant, outlining the Claim against him. All this happens quite quickly, within 1-2 working days, the defendant has 14 days after receipt of the letter to respond.
What happens if the defendant ignores all correspondence from the Court?
If the defendant does not reply to your Claim within 14 Days, you can ask the Court for a 'Judgment by Default'. A Judgment by default is a judgment against the defendant, when the defendant fails to defend the Claim. Therefore you win the case by default.
If you started your Claim online you can request a Judgment by default via the MCOL website. If you made your claim on paper, you will need to complete the bottom half of your Notice of Issue form that the court sent you when you made your claim. HM Courts leaflet EX304 explains the situation pretty well: EX304 I've started a claim in court - what happens next? If the defendant still refuses to pay after the default Judgment has been issued by the Court, you may Enforce the Judgment.
Assuming the defendant does respond to your Claim, there are 2 possible outcomes:
The Defendant can admit the Claim, pay you in full, and that's the end of the matter - but let's assume that won't happen! It’s more likely that he will dispute some or all of the Claim, known as 'Filing a Defence' - you'll get a copy of his defence statement, and things get interesting from this point onwards because once a Claim is disputed, it's then transferred to a named County Court, and later, allocated to a Court Track. All MCOL Claims are first dealt with at the Northampton County Court (CC). When a Claim is disputed, the Claim is transferred to a County Court local to the defendant(*) – In my case Birmingham CC.
(*) If you (an individual) are taking a Company to court, the Claim will be transferred to a County Court local to you.
Both parties are then sent an Allocation Questionnaire from the Court. The purpose of the Questionnaire is to ascertain the complexity of the Claim & Defence, so that it can be allocated (by a Judge) to a Court Track. If you are claiming more than £1500, there is an Allocation fee of £40 to be paid at this point, for claims of £1500 or below there is no fee at this stage.
A Court 'Track' is basically a set of processes / procedures that the Court uses to handle your Claim. There are 3 Court Tracks used in the County Court, Claims are allocated to a Track according to their complexity and the amount/value of the Claim being made:
• Straightforward Claims of £10k and less are allocated to the Small Claims Track.
• Claims of between £10k-25k, that are expected to run for <1 day are allocated to the Fast-Track.
• More complex Claims of >£25k are allocated to the Multi-Track.
Most claimants want their Claim to be dealt with in the Small Claims Track, because of the low-cost, informality and user friendliness of the SC Track. You can't choose the SC Track for your Claim, a Judge makes that decision based on the amount you are claiming and the complexity of your Claim (based on the Allocation Questionnaire).
If the defendant fails to return the Allocation Questionnaire he will receive one reminder letter, then the court will take action. Failing to return the AQ is a big mistake, but potentially good news for you, because a likely scenario here is that the Judge will allow you to request a default Judgment (Use Form N225), i.e. you win the Case by default. There are other possible sanctions available to the Court, such as calling the defendant to attend a Hearing to explain why he didn't comply with the Court's request. You will receive copies of any correspondence sent to the defendant, so at this stage just wait for the situation to play out. Don't request a default judgement until the court to tells you to do so.
Notice of Allocation
When the Court has recieved the respective Allocation Questionnaire's, it issues a Notice of Allocation (let's assume to the Small Claims Track) to both parties, this includes the date, time and location of your Court Hearing. There is a sliding scale fee to pay at this Stage, of up to £325; Search for 'Hearing Fees' in Form EX50 to check the current fee. The Notice of Allocation also tells both parties what they have to do to prepare for the Hearing. These instructions are called ‘directions’. For example, the parties may be told to send copies of all the documents they intend to use as evidence to the court before the hearing. Things are getting serious now, and if you haven't already done so, it's time to get ready for your day in Court.
The Burden of Proof.
As the Claimant, you will need to prove your Case. Your Claim is a Civil Case and as such only has to be proved on the ‘balance of probabilities’, i.e. If it's more likely that your version of events is true, then the Judgment will go in your favour. This is a lower form of proof than in a Criminal Case which must be proved ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.
You will need to be fully prepared for the Hearing; Start by writing down the key points that you need to get across to the Judge, rehearse your presentation to ensure that your delivery is clear and concise. Use a bullet-point format and note down which pieces of paperwork/evidence support each of your key points. There is a difficulty here, in that there is no way to be certain in which direction the defence will go to refute your evidence. When preparing for my Case, I tried to anticipate what the defence would say so that I was ready for anything that could come up. That involved doing a lot of prep work however, of which, only a small proportion, maybe <20% was used during the Hearing.
What Evidence is admissible?
This is actually the wrong question to ask, because you can introduce pretty much any evidence you like into the Hearing. Cases in the Small Claims Track can be handled in whatever way the Judge sees fit so he may note your evidence, or choose to disregard any/all of it - at the stroke of a pen!
MY CASE: I didn’t have a hardcopy contract for my rental agreement, I had an implied contract based on Email and Text Message correspondence with the defendant (which I had printed as evidence) This evidence could easily have been faked, but the Judge chose to accept it and it was the cornerstone of my Case.
The Court Hearing
For a Case in the Small Claims Track, the Hearing takes place in the Judges Chambers. In the Birmingham CC, this is a normal looking room (the size of a large room in a family House) with a desk for the Judge at the head of the room, and a seated area for the Claimant and Defendant. There was also an area for witnesses to give their statements if required. One of the tenets of the Small Claims Track is that the Hearing should be informal, that doesn’t mean you turn up in a T-Shirt & jeans, it means that there are no Wigs/Gowns etc. the Judge wears a business suit, I also wore a suit (no tie) the defendant wore a shirt and trousers; all perfectly acceptable.
The Judge is more accessible in a Small Claims Case, the Hearing progresses quickly, but in a polite, formal way, in some ways it's a similar atmosphere to a Job Interview. You won't be expected to deliver a slick, polished presentation of your Case, just tell the Judge what happened clearly and concisely in your own words, the atmosphere isn't intimidating, you'll get every chance to make your case. In my Hearing the Judge went through main points of the Case in chronological order, until he reached the point where opinions differed; this is where the Hearing really starts and it's the point at which your preparation comes into play, make sure you have the paperwork/evidence readily available to back-up your line of argument, i.e. have your documents to hand, and indexed/labelled such that they can they can be found quickly and presented to the Judge. I was quite nervous going into the Hearing, but knowing I had all my evidence ready and having had a 'dry run' of everything the night before gave me a great confidence boost going into the Court Room.
At the end of my Hearing the Judge asked if either of us has any final statement to make - we both said no. We were then told that we'd be informed of the Judgment by post, within 7 days.
The Judgment was simply a letter to the defendant telling him to Pay the Claim in full, the Judge had decided that my Claim for Rent, indirect costs, plus Court Costs was fair and reasonable and that the defendant was liable. And that is the end of the matter as far as the Court is concerned, the Court simply instructs the defendant to pay. If he refuses, you have a number of options to Enforce the Judgment .
Can I Appeal the Judgment?
It is possible to lodge an appeal within 21 days of the judgment, but appeals are rare as you need both permission from the Judge and proper grounds for the appeal; you can't appeal simply because you disagree with the Judgment. My advice is to forget about the appeals system. Do your preparation/research properly and win the case first time around.