Small claims in Northern Ireland
There are some common terms used in this item:
- applicant - the person making the claim
- respondent - the person/firm against whom the claim is being made
- the notice of application - the form for starting a case
- issuing application to parties - the respondent receiving papers from the court
- enforcement proceedings - the applicant applying to the court for an order to make the respondent pay.
This information is about small claims cases. A small claim is a civil case:
- where the claim has a value of £3,000 or less, and
- where a solicitor is not usually involved.
There are special rules about small claims and the procedures are described in this information. The Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service has issued a Small Claims Guide, which can be downloaded from their website at www.courtsni.gov.uk.
The Consumer Council has produced a leaflet 'Understanding the Small Claims Court', which explains how and when to use the Small Claims Court in Northern Ireland. The leaflet also outlines the steps consumers can take to resolve a complaint before considering making a claim through the Small Claims Court. For a free copy of the 'Understanding the Small Claims Court' leaflet contact the Consumer Council on 0800 121 6022 or download a copy at www.consumercouncil.org.uk
If you have a case which is worth more than £3,000, you should consult an experienced adviser, for example, a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click nearest CAB.
In most cases, the court will not order solicitors’ costs to be paid by the losing party, and if you instruct a solicitor, you will have to pay the costs yourself. For this reason, most applicants deal with a small claim without the help of a solicitor. It is possible to have the help of a friend or lay representative. For example, some Citizens Advice Bureaux can offer trained advisers to help people with small claims. It may be possible to get legal advice (not representation) from a solicitor under the legal aid scheme.
For details of the legal help scheme in Northern Ireland, see Help with legal costs.
Financial value of the case
If the value of a case is £3,000 in Northern Ireland or less, it will generally be suitable for the small claims court. However, if it is a personal injury claim, it will be allocated to the county court. If the applicant is a tenant and is claiming against their landlord because they want their landlord to carry out repairs or other work to the premises and the cost of the repairs or work is less than £3,000, they can use the small claims court.
If the value of the case is more than £3,000.00, the applicant must either:
- claim a maximum of £3,000, clearly stating on the application form that they are giving up their claim to any amount above this, or
- issue a civil bill (up to £15,000).
Types of claims in the small claims court
The most common types of claim in the small claims track are:
- compensation for faulty services provided, for example, by builders, dry cleaners and garages
- compensation for faulty goods, for example, televisions or washing machines which go wrong
- disputes between landlords and tenants, for example, rent arrears or compensation for not doing repairs
- wages owed or money in lieu of notice.
Types of claims that cannot be covered by the small claims court
The following types of claims cannot be covered by the small claims court:
- personal injury claims
- claims in relation to road traffic accidents
- claims for libel and slander
- claims relating to title (ownership) of land
- claims where the matter has been referred from the High Court to the county court.
You must try and settle a claim before taking court action. If you do not try to settle first, the court may penalise you. So, for example, if a television does not work, there is no point in applying to the court immediately for compensation. You must contact the shop which sold it first to try to solve the problem, and only use the court if you cannot get the problem solved by negotiation. The court will expect you to make your claim in writing, giving the other person a reasonable time to reply – a month is usual. You should also warn them that you will take court action if they fail to reply within the given time.
You may be able to sort out your claim by using mediation if the other party agrees. This is where an impartial third party, called a mediator, helps both parties to reach a mutually-agreeable solution to a problem.
Most courts have access for disabled people. If you are disabled and going to court, you should check with the court what facilities there are for disabled people. If access is impossible, the case may be transferred to a more suitable court.
For more information about access for disabled people, you can contact the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service Information centre on 028 9032 8594 between 9am and 5pm, Monday to Friday. If you are deaf or hard of hearing, you can use the text phone service on 028 9041 2920.
As an applicant, you start a claim by filling in a claim form. Claim forms are available from local courts and from the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service website at www.courtsni.gov.uk.
The claim form asks for details of the applicant and the respondent and how much is being claimed. The claim form includes space for the particulars of claim which should be used to set out the details of the claim. If there is not enough room, they can be set out on a separate piece of paper. In some circumstances, as an applicant you might need extra time to complete the particulars of claim.
If the details of the case are complicated, you should consult an experienced adviser, for example, a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.
As the applicant, you may be able to claim interest on your claim. If so, you must include interest in the amount you are claiming on the claim form. If you are claiming interest, you must state this clearly on the application form including the amount and rate of interest which is currently 8%. For more information about claiming interest, go to Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service website at www.courtsni.gov.uk.
If the details of the case are too complicated to fit the space on the form, you should consult an experienced adviser, for example, a solicitor or a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.
In some circumstances, additional documents need to be attached to the particulars of claim. For example, if the claim is based on a written agreement, such as an agreement to purchase goods or services, a copy of the agreement should be attached to the statement of claim.
Applications can be made online at www.courtsni.gov.uk. This service allows the members of the public and businesses to make a small claims application outside normal working hours and track the progress of the application online.
Court fees for online claims must be paid by credit or debit card.
Applying for the claim form to be issued
As the applicant, you should send or take three copies of the claim form to the court where you want to start court action. You should keep an extra copy for your own records. You must also take or send the court fee. The fee depends on the amount of money claimed. You can find out how much the fee is from the Courts Service website at www.courtsni.gov.uk.
In some circumstances, the fee might be waived or reduced, for example:
- because you are getting certain benefits like Income Support or income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance
- because your annual income is low
- because of financial hardship.
Ask the court to tell you how to apply for a reduction or waiver of the fees.
For more information, see the leaflet 'Court fees – do you have to pay' them? on the Court Service website at: www.courtsni.gov.uk.
For a copy of form ER1, which you can use to apply for a reduction or waiver of court fees, go to: www.courtsni.gov.uk.
The court will then issue the claim form to the respondent. It will also give you a notice of issue, a document with the case number on it.
How the claim form is served
Usually the court will serve the claim form by sending it to the respondent by first class post. The respondent will be deemed to receive it on the second day after posting.
If the respondent is not defending the case
If you are the respondent and you accept that you owe the money claimed, you must pay the amount claimed, and applicant’s fee, to the applicant.
If you can pay the money immediately, you should send it to the applicant directly. It is advisable to inform the court that this has been paid and you can complete an acceptance of liability in order to close the case.
If you need time to pay, you can suggest an arrangement, for example, that you pay the money in instalments or all the money in one lump sum at a certain date in the future. If the applicant accepts this offer, they will have to return a form to court requesting ‘decree’. This is a document which specifies a reasonable time to pay back the money. If you are the respondent and you do not keep to the arrangement, the applicant can take legal action forcing you to pay.
If you are the applicant and you do not accept the respondent's offer, you must give your reasons and a judge will decide what a reasonable arrangement should be.
If you are the applicant and you are not happy with the instalment arranged, the chief clerk or the judge will examine the case and decide what a reasonable offer should be. If the respondent does not keep to the arrangement, the applicant can take legal action forcing you to pay.
Where the claim has been made online and is not contested, the entire process can be conducted over the internet.
If the respondent is defending the case
If you are the respondent and you do not accept that you owe the money that is being claimed, you will be defending the case. You have to issue a counter claim or notice of dispute. You must respond by filling in the form 126A which was sent to you with the claim form.
As the respondent, if you do not send a response in to the court, the applicant can apply for a decree to be made against you. If this happens, the parties involved should consult an experienced adviser, for example, a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.
As the respondent, you can send your form either disputing or making a counterclaim to the court. This must be done before a certain date which will be supplied with the claim form.
When the form is returned to the court, the court will arrange for the case to be listed and allocate a date to attend the hearing.
The hearing date
The notice of hearing will usually specify the time, date and place where the hearing will take place and how much time has been allowed for it.
As the applicant, if you want to attend the hearing, but cannot, you can contact the court and apply for a later date to be set. You must give at least one week’s notice. A respondent must attend the court hearing as their absence may be held against them. If they do not attend, a hearing is convened and a summary judgement made.
There is a list of courts and their contact details on the Department of Justice website.
Preparing the case
It is important to prepare the case carefully - the court has to be convinced. The following points are a general guide to what preparation should be made. But if you are not confident about how to present your case, you should consider taking someone else along to help, and/or getting specialist advice first. The main points are:
- if you have a low income, you can use the legal aid scheme, to cover the cost of legal advice (but not representation) from a solicitor. This advice can include getting expert reports, for example, on faulty goods (but a report may be used in court only with the permission of the court)
- notes about the case should be set out in date order. It is very useful to note down what your case is, for example, the points to make, the documents which are relevant, and what they prove. A list of all documents, and other evidence is useful to make sure nothing is forgotten
- damaged or faulty goods should be taken as evidence, if possible, for example, clothes ruined by a faulty washing machine. If this is not possible, photographs could be used instead
- evidence of expenses should be prepared and any receipts taken along
- all letters (and any other relevant documents including photographs) about the case should be ready for the hearing
- in most cases, the applicant and the respondent may be the only witnesses. If the court has agreed that other witnesses can attend, they must attend. If a witness has difficulty getting time off work, it may be helpful to serve a witness summons. The court can explain how to do this
- if you wish to use an expert witness, you must get the permission of the court first, and you must instruct the expert jointly with the other party in the case.
The hearing is usually held in public but it could be held in private if the parties agree, or if the court believes it necessary in the interests of justice.
Hearings in the small claims track are informal and strict rules of evidence do not apply. The judge can adopt any method of dealing with the hearing that they consider to be fair and they may ask questions of the witnesses before allowing anyone else to do so. The judge may limit the time that parties or witnesses have to give evidence.
A lay representative has the right to speak on behalf of a party at the hearing, but only if that party attends the hearing.
If you do not speak English as your first language, you might find it helpful to have an interpreter help you to put your case. The court is not able to help find an interpreter.
If you need help with finding an interpreter, you should consult an experienced adviser for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.
At the end of the hearing, the judge will give the judgment. The judge has to give reasons for their judgment. The reasons must be given as simply and briefly as possible and usually will be given orally to the parties present at the hearing. However, the judge may give them later either in writing or at a later hearing.
If you are the applicant and you win your case, you will get the court fees back as well as the claim, and you can ask for certain expenses also. If you lose, you will not get the court fees back. But it is unlikely that you will have to pay any other costs.
You may appeal against a judgment in the small claims only if:
- the court made a mistake in law, or
- there was a serious irregularity in the proceedings.
If you want to appeal, you must file a notice of appeal within 21 days. A fee is payable, although this could be waived or reduced in cases of financial hardship.
If you want to appeal against a decision in the small claims court, you should consult a solicitor or an experienced adviser for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB
As the respondent, if you lose the case and you do not pay, the applicant will have to go back to the same court to apply for an order to get the money. This is called enforcing the judgment.
If you need a judgment to be enforced, you should consult an experienced adviser for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.