By Amanda Hamilton, NALP

If you are self-employed or run a small business, the hardest thing to manage can be cash flow. So, what can you do if you are owed money and the person is ignoring all your phone calls, emails and letters?

Firstly, don’t panic! It’s easy to start thinking ahead of yourself about the cost and aggravation of taking someone to court – especially if you have no experience of such things.

In fact, most situations don’t end up in court but, if there is no alternative, and if the amount of money is small enough, you can deal with it yourself without employing the services of a solicitor.

Small Claims Court
The ‘Small Claims Court’ which is part of the County Court was originally created to enable a lay-person (someone who is not legally qualified) to take another individual to court. The maximum amount of a claim in those days was £20.

Nowadays, the maximum amount of a claim that you can deal with yourself in the Small Claims Court is £10,000.

Consider costs
It’s important however, before you take someone to court, to consider the likely costs:

  • But what happens if the ‘Defendant’ (the person owing the money) decides not to pay or defends the action? What do you do? Well, if you decide to pursue the individual, it will most certainly incur further costs. If it gets to a hearing, then hearing fees need to be paid (anything from £25 – £410 if you issue proceedings online – slightly more if you issue in paper form). If the case goes beyond this then you may have to apply for judgment against the Defendant and possibly enforce the judgment using the help of a bailiff – incurring further fees.

    Therefore, think very carefully about possible costs before taking the court action step.


Protocol
If you do decide to proceed, then the first thing you need to do is to write the other party a letter clarifying why they owe you money and that you are thinking of taking court action if the amount owed is not paid by a certain date (state the date clearly). All the necessary evidence must be provided to the other party with the letter even though you know that they have the facts already.

Writing a letter before taking any action is a very important part of the process and fulfills what is known as the ‘protocol’. Without having done so, you may jeopardise your case if it does end up in court.

As stated, this is not a free service as there is a claim fee to pay that is dependent on the amount of the claim.

Mediation
However, if you decide, for whatever reason not to take court action – there is an alternative to consider, and that is mediation. This provides individuals and businesses with a low-cost method of resolving a legal dispute without the need to go to court. Again, there is usually a fixed hourly fee to pay by both parties.

Court action
If going to court is your intended action, then after you have sent the ‘protocol’ letter and the time limit for payment has passed, you will need to fill in a form either online or by downloading and printing it. The form is known as a Claim Form N1. You then send the completed form the County Court Money Claims Centre in Salford and pay the court fee (mentioned above).

What happens next depends on whether the ‘Defendant’ (the person owing the money) agrees to pay the amount or refuses to pay or ignores the whole thing!

The Defendant has 14 days to respond, after which time, if there is no response, you may decide to issue a county court judgment (commonly known as a CCJ) against the Defendant. This, in itself, has quite serious consequences for the Defendant because a copy of all CCJs go to a public company and may affect any credit search made against the Defendant’s name – a good and useful tool to add into any pre-action protocol letter that you send.

Once you have the judgement the Defendant may still choose to ignore you and not pay – in which case you’ll need to consider enforcing the Judgement – for example, engaging the services of a bailiff to seize property to cover the amount you are owed.

Advice and support
You can action the entire process above without the help of a solicitor. However, if you feel you do need a bit of extra advice or support then consider using a Paralegal. Paralegals are less costly than a solicitor and can help you in exactly the same way as a solicitor would.  Check that your chosen Paralegal is registered with a membership body like NALP, and holds the relevant Paralegal qualifications and insurance.