What is the small claims court?
The small claims court is a court which is dedicated to hearing cases between private companies and individuals where one side claims that the other one owes them money. The small claims court will only hear financial disputes. It will not be involved in criminal cases, or family disputes.
The small claims court is designed to be a quick, simple and inexpensive process which is accessible to anyone, including lay people (that means any person who is not a legal professional).
Anyone can start proceedings in the small claims court. They will then have the opportunity to make their case in front of a judge. The judge will then decide whether the case is strong enough to issue judgement ordering the other side to pay.
The people or companies involved in the small claims court hearing are referred to as the “parties” in the case. The person, or company, making the claim is called the claimant, and the person, or company, that they are claiming against is called the defendant.
What happens at a small claims court hearing?
At a small claims court hearing, both sides will have the opportunity to make their case to the judge. If either party has lawyers representing them then they will usually speak on their behalf.
A hearing will not be necessary if the claimant has asked the judge to decide the case on paper (meaning based on the written submissions of either side) or if the defendant has not responded to the court papers. In this case, the judgement may be granted in default, meaning without a response from the other side.
When you go to a small claims court hearing, the hearing itself will start with both sides making a statement about their position. This will be a short summary of their arguments and why they think that the judge should either: order the defendant to pay (if you are the claimant); or dismiss the case (if you are the defendant).
If either side has witnesses, they may also be asked to present their evidence to the court; although it tends to be unnecessary for witnesses to attend the court as their evidence can be submitted in writing. A witness will have been asked to give evidence by one of the sides in the case. This means that witnesses will only likely be present at the hearing if the other side wants to question part of their statement.
Because most of the claims that are heard in the small claims court are relatively simple, witnesses are not often relevant to the case. In practice, it is not really practicable to require a witness to attend in the small claims court.
When the judge has heard from both sides and any witnesses, they may ask questions about the arguments presented by either side. Once all questions have been answered, the judge will then come to a decision about the case and whether the claimant has a strong enough case for him to order the defendant to pay.
If the claimant’s case is compelling enough then the judge will grant a judgment against the defendant. If it is not, then the judge will dismiss the case and nothing further will come of the claim. The claimant will also be barred from bringing any future proceedings in the matter.
If, for any reason, the judge needs more time or evidence to reach a decision, then they may order an ‘adjournment’, meaning that a further hearing will take place on another day. This is not very common.
What to expect in small claims court
When we talk about the small claims court, what we are referring to is the process of bringing a claim and asking the court to grant judgement. The smalls claims court is not a building or a place. Small claims court hearings will usually take place in a county court, or a civil justice centre, which tends to be the home of civil and family courts.
When a claim is issued, it will usually be allocated to the claimant’s local court centre. If you are the defendant, you can ask for any hearing to be held at a court centre which is local to you. This is known as asking the case to be ‘transferred’. You will need a good reason for asking for the case to be transferred, but if you are an individual and the claimant is a company, then travel is likely to be a good enough reason to transfer the case.
A hearing is usually the final stage of the small claims court process. There are several things that must happen before a case gets to court, and detailed processes that need to be followed once a claim has been issued. The court will guide you through this process, but it is very important that you follow it.
The court will issue formal directions which tell you what to do and when. So, as long as you pay close attention to these, you should find it easy. If you are not sure what to do, you can always call the court (the number will be on the paperwork you receive) – they will not be able to give you legal advice but are very happy to help if you are unsure about any steps you need to take.
The parties will be encouraged to come to an agreement (otherwise known as settling the claim) before a hearing is needed. This is a good idea for both the parties, and the court, as it saves time and money for everyone.
If you are involved in court proceedings, you can contact the other side at any time to try and reach an out of court settlement. Settling the case out of court (e.g. without a hearing) is a very good idea as it is likely to save you money, regardless of whether you are the claimant or defendant in the case.
How long does the small claims court process take?
From start to finish, the small claims court process can easily take over a year. This will vary in each case and will be depend on factors such as how busy the court is, whether the claim is admitted or defended, any counterclaims that have been made, the availability of each party (and their legal representatives if relevant), the complexity of the case and the directions of the court.
If the defendant does not respond to a claim (see “Acknowledging a Claim” above), then the claimant can ask the court to issue judgement after just 14 days. The time taken for judgment to be issued will depend on the court’s workload, but it will likely take a matter of weeks.