County Courts are very busy places these days, often with 4 or 5 District Judges (DJs) sitting each day.
A District Judge may spend one week presiding over one case taking evidence from various witnesses or they could be making decisions on several cases in one morning. Whilst these Judges do not deal with criminal matters, they do deal with a wide range of civil matters such as divorce, eviction, personal injury and debt.
Debt cases take many forms but they generally start life as a simple money claim. There are currently two ways to start a debt claim. The Money Claim Online is probably the cheapest and easiest for those who are comfortable conducting their business over the Internet. Or, for those who prefer paper to PCs, there is the N1 form which should be available from your local County Court as well as being downloadable from the Ministry of Justice website.
A claim form should never come as a surprise to anyone. The Civil Procedure Rules, introduced in 1999, are all about making genuine efforts to settle a claim. There is no jumping up and down shouting out ‘objection!’ or pulling out last minute vital evidence in the hope of a dramatic final twist. The Claimant (the person claiming that money is owed to them) should always give an opportunity for the Defendant to offer a solution and should provide the Defendant with all available evidence. In fact, once a claim is issued, both Parties will be given the opportunity to engage in negotiation and mediation which is designed to find a solution without the additional time, energy and costs associated with a hearing.
For a case allocated to the small claims track (those under £10,000), the court offers a free mediation service. Even if you feel that you have a cast iron case, this process is recommended as you get to hear what the other side has to say and it may change your mind about your chances of success or of course, it may change theirs.
For larger money claims, they get allocated to one of the other two tracks: fast or multi. For claims between £10,000 and £25,000 which are expected to be heard in no more than one day, it’s the fast track, for all other higher value and more complicated cases, it the multi track.
Each track, although all dealt within the County Court, has its own procedure for which further details are below.
The Small Claims Track
Small Claims Track are claims issued either on an N1 form sent to the County Court Money Claim Centre (CCMCC) in Salford or those issued via the Money Claim Online service. The value of these claims will be no more than £10,000.
If you are in receipt of a claim form, then you will need to respond quickly. You should have been sent a Response Pack containing various documents. You are automatically given 14 days to respond. You must send the acknowledgment of service to the court within those 14 days if you need a little longer to prepare a defence but you will only get 28 days in total.
If you do not respond within the 14 and 28 days limits, the court is very likely to enter Judgment in default against you, meaning the Claimant will be awarded all they have asked for. You will end up with a County Court Judgment (CCJ) which, if you do not pay within 30 days of it being entered, will stay on the Register of Judgments for six years and mean you are susceptible to further action and costs – more on the effects of that in the section on enforcing County Court Judgments.
Assuming you do not want to ignore the claim and end up with an automatic CCJ, you have 5 response options:
1. You can pay the amount owed in full (including interest and court fees) and the case will not progress any further and no CCJ will be issued.
2. You can admit the claim and ask for time to pay on the admission form.
3. You can admit part of the claim and complete both the admission and the defence forms.
4. You can dispute the entire claim and/or make a counter claim and so complete the defence form only.
5. You could ask for the full 28 days to prepare a response and so send off the acknowledgment of service (do not forget to then follow up with Step 3 or 4).
If you defend the claim, you will be sent a Small Claims Track Directions Questionnaire. This is your opportunity to agree to mediation and provide the court with some practical details such as, if you would like the claim to be heard at your local County Court.
If mediation follows and a settlement is agreed, then the case will not progress but the Claimant will have the opportunity to return to court should you not make the agreed payments.
If mediation is not successful then the case will progress to a hearing (with a hearing fee payable by the Claimant) and you will need to start to prepare any witness statements and evidential documents. From here on in, you must follow the directions and deadlines as set by the court.
The Fast and Multi Tracks
The Fast and Multi tracks (for claims over £10,000 in value) are a different beast to the Small Claims Track. Whereas the Small Claim Track is, allegedly, designed for people to use without the help of a legally trained person, the Fast and Multi Tracks not only mean more complicated procedures but the cost implications can be huge, especially for the losing Party.
There is no free mediation with these Tracks.
The court will tightly manage the timetable and give directions for legal processes such as disclosure, whereby both Parties are required to list all the documents they hold in relation to the case.
These cases can go on over many months, even years due to their complexity. Costs is a big issue, even more so following the ruling in Mitchell (aka Plebgate) which was the first high profile case to feel the effects of the 2013 Jackson legal reforms. Although this was a case about who said what to whom at the gate of Downing Street, the real issue for lawyers was a ruling on costs which, in a nutshell, leaves Parties open to very costly sanctions for missing deadlines.
The moral of the story, aside from perhaps not telling porkies to The Sun about what a Government Minster may have called you [edit: apparently no porkies were told, as a high court judge has since decided that the police office lacked the wit or imagination to make it up – ouch!], is that if you find yourself on the end of claim of over £10,000, seek legal advice very quickly.
How do I make a court claim for money?
There are two ways to make a claim – on paper or online.
Online claims are slightly cheaper: A small claim for a value of between £1500 – £3000 will cost £105 to issue online as opposed to £115 to issue on a paper N1.
You will need to complete all the details of yourself as the Claimant and the other party as the Defendant. You will also need to provide details of what you are claiming and also the particulars of your claim. Interest can be added to your claim if the standard wording is added to your form.
Once you have sent/submitted your claim form, the court will ‘serve’ the form on the other side by sending it to them with a response pack by first class post.
You then sit and wait to see if the other side respond. They may ignore the paperwork in which case you can apply for a default judgment after 14 days or they may admit the claim and agree to pay or may deny the claim and send in a defence.
If the claim is defended, a directions questionnaire is sent to both parties and at this stage you can both agree to mediation which is designed to bring an early resolution and avoid the extra time and energy involved in a court hearing.
If no agreement can be reached and the claim proceeds to a hearing, you as the Claimant will need to pay a hearing fee which, in the small clams track, can be up to £335.
Can I get a County Court Judgment (CCJ) removed?
CCJs are added to the Register of Judgments from which credit reference agencies such as Experian, Equifax and Call Credit take the information to add to your credit report.
You can get a CCJ removed if you pay the amount owed within a month of the judgment.
You could get a CCJ removed if you successfully apply for the judgment to be set aside.
You could also get a CCJ removed if it was entered incorrectly.
Otherwise, it will fall off after 6 years or be marked as ‘satisfied’ if you pay the debt off after the first month of entry. If you do pay it off after the first month, the CCJ will remain and it may be useful to apply to the court for a certificate of satisfaction as evidence it has been paid.
How are County Court Judgments (CCJs) enforced?
If you have a CCJ and don’t pay on time or miss instalments, the creditor (the person to whom the money is owed) has a number of options.
A method growing in popularity is to transfer the debt to the High Court for enforcement. If the debt is more than £600, the High Court Enforcement Officers (HCEOs) can be instructed and are generally unforgiving when it comes to visiting your home or place of work to remove goods.
If you owe more than £750, the creditor can serve you a statutory demand which could lead to bankruptcy proceedings.
If you own a property, a common method is for the creditor to apply to the court to put a charge on your property. Once the charge is on the property, technically the creditor can ask the court to order you to sell the property so they can collect their money from the sale. Although creditors have the power to ask the court to force a sale, many are prepared to wait until you chose to sell the property and it’s at that point, they get paid from the sale proceeds.
A creditor may also be able to approach your employer to make a deduction straight from your wages.
What powers do bailiffs have?
There are bailiffs and there are bailiffs.
Top of the tree are the High Court Enforcement Officers (HCEOs). Their powers are wide and they are not afraid to use them. They are the sort of bailiffs you may have seen on TV who let themselves in if they find an opening. They tend to be persistent and if they can’t find anything to take with enough value to sell to cover the debt and their fees, they will often issue a statutory demand which can lead to bankruptcy.
Non HCEOs have less powers but still should not be ignored. You are likely to see one of these if you have a County Court Judgment (CCJ) against you and you have not paid. The creditor applies for a warrant of control from the County Court and that warrant is valid for 12 months. In some cases they can take your vehicle or any number of goods from inside your home but not toys, basic household necessities or tools for work.