What happens if you're taken to court for money you owe

This advice applies to Scotland. See advice for See advice for England, See advice for Northern Ireland, See advice for Wales

If you owe money to someone, they might take you to court to get it back. To do this, they have to fill in a claim form with details of the money you owe and then send it to court.

If the claim against you is for less than £5,000, the court may decide it can be started under the simple procedure.

If you owe more than £5,000 you should get help from an experienced adviser, for example at a Citizens Advice Bureau.

If you owe money for rent

If you owe rent to a private landlord you can be taken to the First-tier Tribunal (Housing and Property Chamber) to get an order to make you pay the arrears.

If you owe money to people or companies in the EU

If you have creditors in the EU, they might be able to take you to court. It depends on where you are.

If you're in the UK, they can only take you to court in the UK, unless they're taking action over a property. But if you're living in the EU, they can take you to court in the EU. They can't take you to court if you're only in the EU for a short time, for example on holiday. 

Get legal advice if you have creditors in the EU.

What happens when a claim is made against you

When a claim is made against you, you'll receive a document from the court called the response form. This might arrive by recorded delivery post or it might be delivered by a sheriff officer.

You might be asked to reply to the court using the online tool called Civil Online. You will need access to a computer, laptop, tablet or smartphone to do this.

You can find out more about Civil Online on the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service website.

The response form will briefly describe the claim and detail how much the other person is claiming you owe them. The person taking action against you is called the claimant. You’re called the respondent.

There might be fuller details of the claim, either on the form itself or in a separate document attached.

The last date you can respond

You must deal with the papers that the court sends you by the deadline given. This is called the last date for a response. If you don't, a decision called a court order can be made against you.

If this happens, you might have to pay back all the money claimed as well as interest and extra costs on top of this.

There are guidance notes which explain how to respond to a claim on the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service website

How to change the last date you can respond

You can change the last date to respond but you have to explain why you need to change it. For example, if you have some evidence that you don’t owe the money but you’re waiting for the evidence to be sent to you and you don't think you will receive it by that date.

You can ask for a change of date:

A solicitor can give you legal advice but this option can be costly. You won't get this money back even if you win the case. More about using a solicitor.

You could consult an experienced debt adviser at a Citizens Advice Bureau. You may have other debts as well as this one, so it might be best to get advice about all of your debts at the same time. More about getting help with debt.

How to track your case

You can track the progress of your case using Civil Online. You’ll be able to access it once the case has a case number.

If you select 'Online' as your preferred method of contact in your Response Form, you can:

  • submit, open, save and print court documents

  • receive documents from the court

  • respond to any claim lodged

  • be told when documents are available from the other party in the case.

You can find out more about Civil Online on the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service website.

Your options when responding to a claim

To respond to a claim you can:

Do nothing

If you do nothing in response to the claim, the case will be considered in court by the sheriff and a court decision will be made against you. You may also have to pay interest and court expenses.

You can recall the court order but you’ll need to explain why you didn't respond to the court papers the first time.

You can check what the process is to recall a court order using Civil Online or form 13B but you may need some expert help, for example, from a Citizens Advice Bureau.

Remember that if a court order for payment of a debt is made against you, it can affect your credit rating for several years. More about out how lenders decide to give you credit.

Admit the claim and pay the claimant

When you admit that you do owe the money, you’ll avoid having to go to court.

You can contact the claimant, arrange to pay the money owed to them or the solicitor. It’s important you keep the evidence of your payment. Do not send money to the court.

Once the money has been paid you should contact the sheriff court to check that the claimant has told the court that the matter is settled.

Admit the claim and ask for time to pay

When you admit the claim but can’t afford to pay the debt straight away you can ask the court for time to pay the money. Use Civil Online or form 5A to apply for time to pay.

To get debt advice or help with asking for time to pay, contact a Citizens Advice Bureau.

If the claimant accepts your offer to pay over a period of time you don’t have to go to court. You will find out from the court if it has been accepted within two weeks.

If your offer to pay over a period isn’t accepted, you’ll have to go to court for a time to pay hearing with the sheriff.

You’ll have to explain again, this time in person, why you want time to pay. If you need advice about having to go to the hearing you can get help from a Citizens Advice Bureau.

Dispute the claim

If you don’t admit the claim and want to dispute it, you, or a representative, has to go to court if there’s a hearing.

Before that happens the sheriff will consider your case for disputing the claim. You should be aware that if you dispute the claim then later change your mind and settle the case you could end up paying huge expenses because the court may take the view that you should have settled it at the beginning of the case.

Sheriff's options when there is a dispute

The sheriff has the following options when there’s a dispute:

  • refer both parties in the case for alternative dispute resolution

  • arrange a case management discussion

  • arrange a hearing

  • consider whether or not to make a decision about the claim without a hearing

  • dismiss the claim or make a decision because the claim is unlikely to be successful.

If the sheriff decides that the case should continue on to a case management discussion or a hearing you should get advice about what help you may need and whether you want to be represented, for example, by a lay person. You can get help from a Citizens Advice BureauFind out more about powers of the sheriff in civil legal action below the value of £5,000.

How to appeal a decision

You can make an appeal against the court decision within 28 days of the decision letter being sent to you. There is more information about appealing a decision on the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service website.

A fee is payable to register the appeal. The help of a solicitor is usually essential and subsequent costs could be very high. Legal aid may be available for an appeal against a decision under the simple procedure. More about legal aid.

Enforcement of court order

If a court order is made against you the person or company who has the court order can take legal action to force you to pay. You may find it helpful to get the help of an experienced adviser for example at a Citizens Advice Bureau

Find out more about being forced to pay back a debt.

More about simple procedure

What is simple procedure

Powers of the sheriff in civil legal action below £5,000

Help with legal costs

Using a lay representative in civil legal action