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4 March 2021

How to use the small claims court

If you're considering using the small claims court to get your money back from a company, follow this step-by-step guide to help you.
Which?Editorial team

Going to small claims court

You can use the small claims process for most contractual consumer problems, ranging from unfairly issued parking tickets to retailers who refuse to take responsibility for their faulty goods.

There is a claim value limit that varies dependant on where you are in the UK.

The total you can claim in England and Wales is £10,000, in Scotland it's £5,000 and in Northern Ireland it's £3,000.

There are a couple of key exceptions to this. You can't claim up to this amount for housing disrepair or personal injury, the limit for these is £1,000.

But even if your claim is within the claims limit, a judge may decide that a case cannot be heard as a small claim if the case is believed to be too complex.

To pursue claims outside the small claims track is likely to involve a more complicated process, can be more costly and can take longer. And, you'll also normally need a solicitor to prepare your case.

Key Information

Small claims court fees

Using the small claims court should cost you relatively little in fees. This is partly because you put the case forward yourself, so you don't have to pay for a solicitor.

You're required to pay the fees needed to take a claim through the small claims court in advance.

The total amount you have to pay in small claims court fees depends on how much you're claiming and whether you're in England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.

It will also depend on how far your claim goes through the court process.

1 Follow the small claims process

Visit the HM Courts & Tribunals Service (Her Majesty's Court Service) online in England and Wales or your local court to get a claim form and other documents that explain the small claims process. 

HM Courts & Tribunals Service modernised its online court claim system in 2018 to make it quicker and easier for people to claim money owed, resolve disputes out of court and access mediation.

The process for making a court claim, often known as taking someone to a small claims court, is different in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Make sure you've complied with all the steps set out in the Practice Direction on Pre-Action Conduct before you start court action in England or Wales.

If you've taken all the steps necessary to avoid court action but haven't been able to resolve the situation, then you'll need to complete the necessary claim forms.

Key Information

Small claims procedure in Scotland and Northern Ireland

In Scotland, the small claims process is called Simple Procedure. Simple procedure replaced the former small claims procedure in November 2016. A claim is made in the sheriff court by a claimant and does not require a solicitor.

Visit the Scottish Courts and Tribunals guide on the simple procedure in Scotland for more information on making a claim. 

In Northern Ireland, you can get an application form from the court office, Trading Standards Office, Citizens Advice Bureau, local advice centre or the Northern Ireland courts website to start your claim. The claim should then be brought to any court office or posted to the Civil Processing Centre together with the appropriate fee.

Read this booklet which explains in full how the small claims process works in Northern Ireland.

2 Filling in the small claim forms

You need to have the full name and address of the defendant. If the defendant is a company, you'll need to give the address of the registered office. 

If you can't find this, then you can use a trading address instead.

You must set out in full the reason for your claim and the sum you're claiming from the defendant. 

When you've completed the form, the court will log the document and assign it a claim number.

Key Information

Should I use mediation?

Mediation isn't mandatory but it can be an effective way to settle your dispute out of court.

You will be asked whether you would like to be referred to a mediation service after you commence a small claims court claim in England and Wales.

If you unreasonably refuse to try mediation, or are unreasonable in the conduct of the case, then this could result in cost penalties being made against you. This would be at the discretion of the judge.

For the mediation itself, the mediator will ensure that both parties are aware that the process is not a judicial hearing and that the mediator will not take sides but take a neutral role.

The outcome of the mediation could be something other than money - possibly an apology or an agreement for a trader to return and do the faulty work again.

Not all mediations result in settlement of the dispute. But, if you sign a settlement agreement at the end of mediation, then that agreement will be binding on you.  

3 Wait for a reply

You must give the defendant a chance to send a defence – a brief explanation of why they're disputing your claim. 

Alternatively, the defendant may accept your claim in full or in part. 

The person or business who owes you money must respond to your claim. You’ll be sent a letter or email telling you the date they need to respond by.

Within that time, they can either file a defence or file an Acknowledgement of Service. 

If they file an Acknowledgment of Service within 14 days, they have a further 14 days in which to file a defence.

4 Directions Questionnaire

Following the receipt of a defence a court official will send out a notice of proposed allocation together with a Directions Questionnaire. 

Only where a party is a litigant in person (ie acting for themselves) will the court send out the appropriate Directions Questionnaire. 

The term 'directions' refers to the things that the Court orders or directs the parties to do before the final hearing takes place. 

All parties will be required to serve a copy of the completed Directions Questionnaire and any other documents required by the notice on all other parties.

5 Follow up your claim

If the other side doesn't file a defence, you can ask the court to order the defendant to pay if they don’t respond to your claim.

You need to:

The court may grant your claim in full or set a date for a hearing where it decides how much you should receive.

If the other side does file a defence, you'll have to wait until the court assigns a date. 

In the meantime you'll receive an Directions Questionnaire, which the court uses to decide how complex your case is, and how long it will take to hear. 

You will receive a set of directions from the court which are instructions to the parties as the case moves towards the final hearing. 

For example, the direction could state that both parties send each other, and the court, copies of the documents they will be referring to during the hearing.

6 Court visit or mediation 

You might have to go to a court hearing if: 

  • the defendant says they don’t owe you any money
  • they disagree with the amount you’ve claimed
  • you don’t agree with how they’ve offered to repay you

If your claim is under £10,000 you’ll be asked if you’d like to use the court’s small claims mediation service to reach an agreement with the defendant.

7 Exchange evidence

Within the small claims court system it is a standard to exchange evidence between both parties 14 days before the hearing date, at which point it may be easier to settle the claim outside of court.

But for all court dates confirmed after 6 March 2017 you can only cancel a hearing and get a full refund of your fees up to 28 days before your scheduled hearing date.

Key Information

Paying for experts

You may also have to pay for an expert to provide evidence to support your case. For example, a mechanic to say that a fault in your car shouldn't occur in a car of that age.

If you win, in most cases the defendant will have to pay these fees on top of the amount you're claiming for.

The upper limit of the amount that can be recovered for experts' fees in a case allocated to the small claims court is £750.

You should agree with the other party that they are happy with the expert you plan to use and you should keep expert fees proportionate to your claim.  

8 Resolution 

If you win your small claims court case the judge will state how long the defendant has to pay the sum you've been awarded – this is often one month. 

This amount can include expenses such as your court fees, reasonable travelling expenses, the cost of staying overnight if relevant, and up to £90 for loss of earnings if you had to take unpaid time off work to attend the court hearing. 

You can ask for the same for any witnesses you called, as long as it was necessary for them to attend the hearing. 

In Northern Ireland you can only claim the court fee.

If you lose your small claims court case you may have to pay the other side's costs, but only if the other side ask the court for them to be paid and the judge agrees. You'll also have to keep to the terms of any court orders that the judge makes against you. 

You do have the right to appeal the decision and try the case all over again before a higher court. Before you take this step it's essential that you seek professional legal advice.