Having recently seen off a legal challenge, here’s everything I learned including who to contact, my rights and more.
Why I was threatened with a legal challenge
When I opened my letterbox one day last December and found a document stating a County Court claim had been lodged against me, I wasn’t completely surprised.
My former accountant had threatened legal action against me earlier that week, although I hadn’t expected to receive something official quite so quickly.
As a self-employed journalist I’ve had the odd slow-paying client and case of copyright theft, so have sometimes had reason to send a letter before action to encourage payment.
What needs to happen before a claim can be lodged
When I received the claim I believed certain steps should have been followed before lodging it and I was right.
The claimant should have followed the Pre-Action Protocol for Debt Claims, which was introduced by the Government in 2017 to reduce the number of disputes ending up in court.
He hadn’t, but that didn’t stop him from lodging a claim.
In fact, there’s nothing to stop anyone making a claim against you for any reason whatsoever.
Nobody is vetting claims at the initial stage for their prospects of success and if someone makes a claim against you, you’re forced to deal with it no matter how ridiculous you think it is.
In my case, I was convinced I’d behaved perfectly reasonably.
My husband and I went to a meeting with an accountant last September to discuss our 2017-2018 returns.
He’d done our accounts before and had detailed knowledge of our circumstances.
We discussed various issues of the tax year in question and he took notes and asked various questions.
But when our accounts and tax returns arrived a week or so later, they didn’t reflect our circumstances, our meeting or our previous returns.
In fact, the accounts weren’t even correctly reflected in the tax returns. In short, it was a mess.
I was furious with the sloppy work, especially as he’d also recently hiked his prices substantially, and resolved never to use him in future.
However, I simply emailed back a list of the issues and asked him to redo the documents.
I also queried the invoice sent with the accounts and it didn’t reflect something agreed in the meeting.
Check your legal position
I’d written about the Consumer Rights Act 2015 before and believed my response was the correct course of action for a consumer unhappy with a service provided.
According to the Act, where a service provider doesn’t meet their contractual obligations, a consumer has the right to ask for the work to be redone or ask for a price reduction.
A couple of weeks after asking for the work to be redone, I received an email that suggested he hadn’t taken the time to investigate the issues properly.
His response, with no updated documents, included incorrect calculations, overlooked or denied most of the mistakes, and went on to accuse me of exaggeration.
I replied to say I would seek a new accountant as I’d lost confidence in the firm.
I received another email going over the same issues, and reiterated I didn’t require his services.
I heard nothing further for almost a month, when I received a statement in the post.
In truth, I hadn’t thought he expected to be paid for such poor work and he hadn’t raised it when I terminated his services.
I immediately sent a formal dispute of invoice, at which point he threatened legal action in an email if I didn’t pay his bill in full.
We had to hire a new accountant to do the work so considered this unreasonable.
He’d gradually admitted to most of the errors in a series of emails, so I couldn’t understand why he expected me to pay for work that wasn’t fit for purpose.
What are the risks of defending a claim?
Despite believing I was right, the claim form was frightening.
I was informed if I did nothing judgement would go against me and that “this might make it difficult to get credit”.
I had just 14 days from the date of service to reply and either admit I owed the funds or defend the claim.
Although I was convinced the claimant was behaving unreasonably, I’m not a lawyer and I’ve never been involved in a claim before.
Would the judge agree with me? And what would happen if I lost?
Would I be forced to pay a huge legal bill and would I end up with a County Court Judgement (CCJ) that made it impossible for me to access financial products?
It didn’t take me too long to work out the former wasn’t going to be an issue.
As the claim was for less than £10,000 it was likely to be allocated to the Small Claims Track, where parties can only recover limited costs against the other side and not professional legal costs.
When it came to the CCJ issue, it was harder to find a decisive authoritative answer online.
However, the Registry Trust, which maintains the CCJ list, confirms that if you defend and lose a claim, while a CCJ does go on your file, if you pay the amount ordered within one month you can have it removed, rather than it staying on for the usual six years.
After deciding I wasn’t at risk of a huge legal bill or financial purgatory I decided to defend the claim.
The most recent statistics suggest more people are doing so – Ministry of Justice figures for January to March showed that the number of money claims being defended had risen 8% on the same period the previous year.
Preparing a defence
Though the claimant’s particulars of claim were brief, didn’t acknowledge the dispute about the work and bizarrely, listed an invoice amount that didn’t actually match the invoice sent, I wrote a detailed nine-page defence setting out my legal position.
The paperwork was time-consuming.
I also had to fill in a directions questionnaire and later send numerous emails and letters to the court asking them to change the hearing date after it was set for a date I’d listed I was unavailable.
The matter dragged on for what felt like forever – according to the Ministry of Justice the average time for small claims cases to reach trial is almost 37 weeks – with regular emails arriving in my inbox from the claimant adding various fees to the original invoice.
Several weeks ago I set aside a day on the weekend to prepare my witness statement for the hearing, which was due to take place a few weeks later.
The court had previously sent directions requiring the exchange of a large number of documents two weeks prior to the hearing.
However, the following day, before I had a chance to send it, I was copied in on an email to the court with a letter from the claimant asking it to discontinue the claim.
I’m not sure if he knew all along his claim was without merit or he suddenly decided to look over the documents and came to his senses, but I’m glad I stuck to my guns.
He didn’t do the work I’d engaged him to do to a professional standard and I had therefore had to pay someone else to do it.
The court system shouldn’t be used to bully people into paying money they don’t legally owe.
Where you can get help
Check your home and motor insurance policies to see if you have legal expenses insurance.
If you do, your insurer may be able to offer advice or even representation for your claim at no cost.
While it’s unlikely someone will be able to represent you at a hearing, they should be able to advise whether your defence has merit.
Advicenow also has an extensive range of resources for those with legal issues.
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