Before you take someone to court
If you have a consumer problem, you can take a trader to court to try and get your money back. You should only consider taking someone to court if you have not been able to sort out your problem and there is no other way to get what you want without taking legal action.
This page tells you things to think about before you decide to take court action.
Are you within the time limits for making a claim?
For most consumer claims you have to make your claim within six years. If you're not sure whether you’re outside the time limit, get advice from the Citizens Advice Consumer Helpline.
Should you use alternative dispute resolution or the courts?
Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) covers schemes that try to resolve disputes without the need for court action. Many of their decisions will be legally binding and will prevent you from taking court action except to enforce an award. You might be able to reject the ADR decision and take court action instead.
If you have a problem with a trader who is a member of a trade association with an ADR or mediation scheme, you should consider this alternative. If your dispute is about more than £10,000 (or £5,000 if it is about personal injury or housing disrepair), you should discuss this option with a solicitor. Use The Law Society website to find a solicitor near you.
You might decide to take court action rather than using ADR if:
- the trader is not a member of a trade association with a conciliation or arbitration scheme (although you might have the third option of the Financial Ombudsman Service if you originally paid the disputed amount by credit card, debit card or credit agreement)
- the amount you’re claiming is under £10,000 (or £1,000 if it is about personal injury or housing disrepair), and will be dealt with as a small claim
- you have a reluctant witness (only a court can order a witness to attend)
- there is no limit to the amount of compensation you can claim, for example in a negligence claim. ADR might have limits on the level of payments it can award
Read more about using Alternative Dispute Resolution
Are you prepared to go to court?
Consumer claims in civil court are split into 3 tracks depending on how much you're claiming. Claims of:
- up to £10,000 are put in the small claims track
- £10,000 to £25,000 are usually put in the fast track
- over £25,000 are put in the multi track
Going to court can be stressful, as well as taking up a lot of your time. You'll have to gather together the paperwork yourself. There will be court forms to fill in and you'll have to meet deadlines. Think about how you'll handle this and whether you might need help.
The small claims process is supposed to be simple enough for you to manage without the help of a solicitor. There shouldn't be lots of witnesses to call or difficult points of law to understand.
The fast track and multi track are more complicated and it might be best to use a solicitor to help you.
Can you afford to go to court?
Going to court can be costly so think about whether it's worth it before you start. Check if you have legal cover included on an insurance policy.
You'll have to pay court fees based on how much your claim is and the track you use.
You might be able to get help with court fees if you're on a low income. You should check if you’re eligible on GOV.UK, then you can apply using either:
Expert opinion fee
If you need an expert opinion, the court usually asks you to share costs with the trader.
If you use a solicitor you'll have to pay their fees, even if you win the case.
You're more likely to need to use a solicitor in the fast track and multi track. If you win your claim, the trader may be ordered to pay your costs. But if they're not ordered to pay, or they are but they still refuse, you'll have to pay. you could try to enforce the judgement but it will probably be expensive.
If you lose your case, you can't claim back the court costs and you might have to pay the trader's costs on top.
Will the trader be able to pay you if you win?
Even if you win your case, a trader might refuse or not be able to pay you. If this happens, you will either have to take further court action to get your money back or accept that you won't be able to recover your losses.
You could check the trader's finances before you go to court. You may have to pay to find out this information, so work out whether the amount of money you're claiming makes this cost worthwhile.
You can also check whether they've been taken to court or refused to pay what they owe before at www.trustonline.org.uk.
You won't be able to take a limited company to court if they've already gone out of business. You can check if the company is still trading through the Companies Registration Directory or contact Companies House, at www.companieshouse.gov.uk, to do a full search.
Sole traders and partnerships
Owners and partners are responsible for their business debts. To find out if they are worth taking to court, you can check if they own property or valuables that could be sold to pay you.
You can check if a trader or partnership is already bankrupt before you take any court action by searching the bankruptcy and insolvency register on GOV.UK.
Which court procedure will be used?
Most cases start in the county court, unless your claim is for more than £100,000 (£50,000 in a personal injury case), when it might be started in the High Court.
If you’re claiming a fixed amount of money, you can make the claim online. If the trader is defending the case, a judge will decide which type of court procedure (known as a ‘track’) is most appropriate for your case. Most cases worth £10,000 or less will be allocated to the small claims track, which is dealt with by the county court.
To help the judge allocate your case, you will receive an allocation questionnaire. The questionnaire asks for certain information, such as:
- whether you want to call any witnesses
- details of any experts' evidence you want to use
You will get a copy of the trader’s defence against your claim, if they have one. The trader will also fill in an allocation questionnaire. You must send your completed allocation questionnaire back by the date you’re given. If you return your questionnaire late, your claim might be dismissed. You might have to pay a further fee in any case.
You will then receive a notice of allocation. This tells you:
- which track your claim has been allocated to
- whether your case is to be transferred to the trader's local court
This section only deals with cases that are allocated to the small claims track. You should seek legal advice before going any further if your case has been allocated to the fast track or the multi track. The costs involved might be very high.
Small Claims Mediation
You can apply for mediation before going to court if your small claim is defended. You and the defendant both have to agree to it.
Small Claims Mediation is free and confidential. It offers one-hour mediation appointments, before any court hearings, with trained HM Courts & Tribunal Service mediators.
Find out more about what to do before applying to the court
Notice of allocation
The notice of allocation will usually include:
- the court's decision on whether you can use an expert
- confirmation of how many witnesses you can call
- standard directions
You’ll usually get the date, time and place of the hearing at this stage. The directions will also tell you what you need to do next. You must follow these directions. If you don't, the case could be postponed and you could have to pay all the costs of the case.
You usually have to send the trader (the defendant) copies of all the documents you want to use in evidence and to file a copy of all these papers with the court. You have to do this not less than 14 days before the hearing.
The judge might call a preliminary hearing if they want to discuss issues with you before the full hearing. You must attend the preliminary hearing or let the court know if the date is inconvenient and apply to the judge for another date to be set. You might have to pay a fee for this if you didn’t mention this on your allocation questionnaire.
It’s possible for the judge to make a decision on the case at the preliminary hearing. You should therefore take along any written evidence you have. Don’t bring your witnesses to court unless the judge has given permission for this.
In some cases the judge might decide that there’s no need for a full hearing, and that the claim can be dealt with on written evidence only. However, if you or the trader raise objections, your claim will proceed to a full hearing.
You must keep to any time limits you are given by the court or your case might be dismissed (struck out).