Life and Times – Small change in the small claims

A friend recently asked me to assist her in taking a roofer she’d employed to the Small Claims Court. The work he’d done, she said, was so poor that she needed to employ someone else to put it right and she felt justified in taking out a case against him to claim the extra money it was going to cost her. That was around £3,000 and she didn’t have it.

A speedy resolution?
I’d been told that the Small Claims Court was a place where, for a small fee, you could go to an informal hearing in front of a judge for a speedy resolution of your case. In the event what I discovered was entirely different. You could indeed go to this Court to claim any amount under £10,000 by filling in a relatively simple form and paying a sum of around 10% of the money you were claiming, which you hoped would be added to the amount you were awarded at the end. But any simplicity ended there and what came next was unbounded complication.

First of all, the defendant, the roofer, on receiving notice of the claim against him, denied all responsibility and issued a counter-claim arguing that my friend actually owed him money since he’d miscalculated the cost of the materials he’d used, even though he’d not told her about that at the time. Manifestly absurd of course, but the Court then ordered her to respond to his claim and send that response both to him and the Court. Then, when, after several weeks she received the roofer’s response to her own claim, she was instructed to respond to that as well.

Pompous judge
Eventually, some weeks later, a date was set for a ‘preliminary hearing’. The day came and I accompanied my friend. To say what happened at the hearing was – what’s the word, farcical? overblown? – I don’t know. I imagined we would have a chance to put our case to the Court directly. Instead, the judge, who really was the proverbial pompous ass, told us that the point of the hearing was not for him to hear what we had to say but to inform us how the case would progress henceforth. He then took 45 minutes to impart much largely irrelevant information, only at the end of which did he lay down instructions – of an incredibly complicated nature -about what we now needed to do. Though the roofer was clearly a hostile opponent, we should get together with him to seek and agree on an independent assessor who would draw up a report on the work done, for which we should expect to pay around £1,500, the cost to be shared by both parties. There would then be another £300+ to pay towards the cost of the final hearing, which amount would fall upon my friend. The hearing itself, referred to by the judge as ‘the trial’ would, he decided, last a whole day sometime in the future.

We were discouraged to say the least, and even more so a couple of weeks later when we received the judge’s formal written instructions confirming what he had said but adding a few additional hurdles. One of these was to supply both the Court and the defendant with all relevant documentation (contracts, bills, plans, photos, valuations, etc.) within a very limited timescale. Another was to send to everyone involved, ahead of the ‘trial, a ‘hearing bundle’ containing all items of evidence from both sides ‘with an index at the front and with each page numbered’ and ‘contained in a suitable ring binder’. All this for a hearing where £3,000 might or might not be granted on an undetermined day in the future.

What would most people do in the circumstances? My friend, understandably bemused by all this, asked me what I thought. My advice to her was that, despite the blatant injustice of it, she needed to drop the case on the grounds that it just wasn’t worth the time, energy and stress of it all. She agreed readily and said she realised that the ‘Civil Justice Centre’, which was responsible for processing the claim, had at best a tenuous connection with justice, its main concern being the discharge of bureaucratic procedures. So we put together a letter stating that the absurdly heavy-handed way in which our simple claim was being handled left us with no choice but to discontinue it. As for paying for the extra work that needed to be done, she told me she would try and get an additional loan on her mortgage from the bank she held it with. Not ideal of course, but anything seemed better for her than staying in the bureaucratic maze she’s entered.

Human energy wasted
What to conclude? Well, first of all, the very existence of the Small Claims Court (also known as the ‘Money Claims Court’) is a prime example of how the system we live in is ruled by money, with workers having to spend much of their time seeking to make sure they have enough of it to keep their heads above water. Even a small overspend or unexpected expense can put someone on the wrong side of solvency and make them have to scramble around, via such routes as the Small Claims Court, to try and put that right. Secondly that Court is just one of the many examples of the enormous waste of human energy and resources inherent in a system that spawns vast amounts of socially unproductive activities resulting in huge complex bureaucracies and large numbers of what have rightly been called ‘bullshit jobs’.

Anyway, there’s no doubt about what I’ll say the next time I hear someone talk about going to the Small Claims Court. ‘Just forget it.’


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