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Pre-Hearing Timetable in the Small Claims Court

By: Louise Smith, barrister - Updated: 1 Sep 2010 | comments*Discuss
Small Claims Court Small Claims

Cases in the small claims court often follow a similar path. The small claims procedure explains to parties conducting their own cases what they have to do and when to do it. The procedure generally means that cases going through the small claims court are resolved more quickly than many other types of cases.

The Dispute

Whatever the background of a case all efforts should be taken to resolve it before starting a legal claim. Going to court should always be a last resort – not something to do in a fit of anger. There are never any guarantees about who will win a case and there may be cost implications – especially for the losing party.

Pre-Action Protocols and the Small Claims Court

Some types of cases have a specific pre-action protocol to be followed by the parties before a claim is started. Whilst failure to comply with a protocol may not be fatal to a case it could impact on the order the judge makes and may affect the amount of costs recoverable by the winner. A judge may not expect a party in the small claims court to have followed the pre-action protocol but it certainly would not hurt their case if they had.

Letter Before Action

Once all hope of reaching an agreement has faded a letter before action should be sent to the other side. This letter – sometimes called a letter of claim - should:
  • Set out the position as the writer sees it;
  • Give the other side a final chance to resolve the issue – for example, by paying the money that is owed;
  • State that legal proceedings will be started without further notice if the matter is not resolved. The other side is usually given at least 7 days in which to comply.
Sometimes a letter before action will make the other side see reason and lead to the dispute being resolved.

Starting a Claim

If the other side does not respond a claim may be started, although there is no obligation to do so. A claim can be started at the local county court and some types of claims can be started online. Most people will have to pay a fee which varies according to the monetary value of the claim.

Once the claim has been started, or issued, the court will send the claimant a notice telling them when the claim was issued and how long the defendant has to respond.

The Defendant’s Response

There are usually three different responses the defendant can make to a claim:
  • Ignore it completely;
  • Respond to the claim and say that it is admitted;
  • Respond to the claim and say that they intend to defend the claim or some part of it.
If the defendant either ignores or admits the claim the claimant will usually be entitled to request a judgment almost immediately.

Allocation to the Small Claims Court

All defended claims have to be allocated to an appropriate “track” so that the court can deal with the case efficiently and proportionately. Until allocation most claims are dealt with in basically the same way regardless of their financial value or complexity. It is only at this stage that some claims will be allocated to the small claims track. Technically there is no such thing as the small claims court – just small claims cases.

The parties will be sent allocation questionnaires to help the court decide what sort of case it is. If the court is still not sure of the correct track it may list the case for a hearing at which a judge can discuss allocation with the parties.

Directions and the Small Claims Procedure

Small claims cases then need to be prepared for trial. A judge will give directions telling the parties what they need to do before the trial, how long the trial will take and when the trial will be held. The court may decide that there should be a preliminary hearing at this stage to establish which directions are needed or to pinpoint the nature of the case.

Notice of the Court Hearing

All the parties to the case will be sent a written order setting out the directions given by the judge and a notice of hearing which tells the parties when the case will be held.

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