The DIY way to bring a case to court

The Jewish Chronicle - - Features -

AN­NETTE FROM New­cas­tle writes: “My 24-year-old daugh­ter starts a post­grad­u­ate course at a Lon­don col­lege in the com­ing term. To­gether with a girl­friend, she was search­ing for rented ac­com­mo­da­tion in west Lon­don. Re­cently, it seemed that she had struck lucky, us­ing an ap­par­ently rep­utable lo­cal es­tate agent. She in­spected a flat for which the landlord was seek­ing a rent of £375 a week. Af­ter ne­go­ti­at­ing with the agent, a price of £325 was agreed. She was asked to pay two weeks rent as a hold­ing de­posit, while the pa­per­work was pre­pared. This was said to be re­fund­able if the rental did not go through. My daugh­ter duly paid the agent £650 by cheque. A few days later he phoned her and apol­o­gised pro­fusely, say­ing that he had made a mis­take and the landlord would not ac­cept a penny un­der £350 per week. He of­fered to make good the £25 per week short­fall him­self, al­though he did not say for how long. He then asked my daugh­ter to meet the land-

AN­NETTE, my in­stincts tell me your daugh­ter made a wise de­ci­sion by pulling out. Both the landlord and this es­tate agent sound un­savoury.

There was a time not so long ago when a lay per­son could not re­al­is­ti­cally hope to bring a civil claim with­out em­ploy­ing a so­lic­i­tor and of­ten also a ju­nior coun­sel, and the high le­gal and court costs meant in ef­fect that it was sim­ply not worth su­ing for any sum be­low an ar­bi­trary fig­ure of, say, £5,000.

How­ever, there has been a sea-change in re­cent years, largely thanks to the root -and branch re­forms of our civil jus­tice sys­tem by that great judge, Lord Harry Woolf.

I con­fess that I pre­vi­ously had very lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence of what is now called the Small Claims Court. Your ques­tion has given me the op­por­tu­nity to dis­cover more about it. All claims un­der £5,000 are now al­lo­cated rou­tinely to this court, which is ef­fec­tively a ju­nior branch of the County Court. Its judges and of­fi­cials are en­cour­aged to act in­for­mally, and with a min­i­mum of le­gal tech­ni­cal­ity, the idea be­ing that lit­i­gants act­ing in per­son are made to feel as com­fort­able as pos­si­ble.

It is prob­a­bly a bit like the Amer­i­can TV show, Judge Judy. Strict rules of ev­i­dence and pro­ce­dure do not ap­ply. Much of the pa­per­work can be down­loaded and even com­pleted on­line. I would re­fer you to the www.di­rect. gov.uk web­site, but also the ex­cel­lent guid­ance which can be found on the Ci­ti­zens Ad­vice Bureau web­site ( www. cit­i­zen­sad­vice.org.uk). I was amazed how user-friendly both these sites are, and I doubt that any rea­son­ably in­tel­li­gent per­son will have any dif­fi­culty in bring­ing or de­fend­ing a claim un­der £5,000, or need to em­ploy a lawyer.

Your daugh­ter should now write out a full ac­count of her deal­ings with the es­tate agent and the landlord, in­clud­ing the de­tail of each con­ver­sa­tion and phone call chrono­log­i­cally. She should, of course, ob­tain the paid cheque from her bank. I see no rea­son in prin­ci­ple why she should not be be­lieved, de­spite most of the trans­ac­tions be­ing oral. If you, or per­haps her girl­friend, were also rel­e­vant wit­nesses to any of these events, then you should each write down your full rec­ol­lec­tions sim­i­larly.

The Small Claims Court can also of­fer free me­di­a­tion ser­vices as an al­ter­na­tive to a con­tested hear­ing. Costs are not nor­mally awarded to ei­ther side, win or lose. Court fees are min­i­mal. The on­line guid­ance is so straight­for­ward, that I frankly doubt there is any­thing more for me to say, other than to wish your daugh­ter good luck in her claim. The above is not for­mal le­gal ad­vice and is given with­out li­a­bil­ity. Jonathan Gold­berg QC is a lead­ing Lon­don bar­ris­ter. Visit www.gold­bergqc.com

PHOTO: AP

lord, which she did. She found him to be a sleazy char­ac­ter, who asked her a lot of em­bar­rass­ing ques­tions about her per­sonal life. My daugh­ter felt dis­tinctly un­com­fort­able. She phoned the agent to say she no longer wanted to go through with the rental. He promised to re­turn her de­posit in full, but de­spite many sub­se­quent phone calls he has not done so, and is now avoid­ing her calls. She has no pa­per­work. Is there any­thing she can do to re­cover the de­posit, or will this sim­ply be a ques­tion of throw­ing good money af­ter bad? For a stu­dent, of course, £650 is a lot to lose.” The Small Claims Court is not un­like Judge Judy’s TV ver­sion

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