People left out of pocket by shopkeepers say UK county court system is ‘inadequate’ | consumer affairs
HAzel Rose’s coffin was believed to have been adorned with her favorite spring flowers for her funeral in March last year. But she was sent to rest in a bare coffin when the wreath, ordered from a London florist, did not arrive. A year later, her family are still waiting for a refund – despite taking the case to small claims court.
“It was extremely distressing to the family that my mother’s flowers did not arrive and it would have been a consolation if the matter had been resolved before the first anniversary of her death,” Hazel’s daughter Andrea said.
Instead, she and her brother, Anthony, have so far spent £143 in legal costs trying to recover the £110 they paid for the flowers. Andrea says principle rather than money prompted her long battle. The company disputes the claim and says it got the delivery time wrong.
The case reveals gaps in consumer legal protection and highlights why some activists say the county court money claims system is inadequate.
A claim for money in county court is the last resort for customers who are left behind when a merchant fails to deliver. The customer files a claim with the court and pays a fee, starting at £35, and the trader receives a letter asking them to pay. If not, the client can seek judgment.
If the court decides in favor of the client, a High Court Judgment (CCJ) is issued, ordering the defendant to pay the debt plus associated costs and appropriate compensation. This CCJ will mess up their credit file for six years, but it is not a criminal offense for the defendants to ignore the court’s decision. If they do, applicants have to pay additional fees to apply without any certainty of success. For claims worth less than £300, the cost of suing the defendant may exceed the amount they owe.
Registry Trust figures show that only 16% of CCJs in England and Wales were recorded by the courts as satisfied between 2020 and 2021, meaning the vast majority have not been paid. There is no data on the number of orders settled without the courts being informed.
According to Arun Chauhan, the founder of Tenet Law, the system is unsuitable for claims under £3,000. “My experience is that the process, time, stress and money involved is disproportionate, certainly against rogue traders who know the hunt to get money back is often off-putting, so people give up,” a- he declared. “There needs to be a faster system with an automated collection process using bailiffs if the defendant fails to provide proof to the court that they have paid.”
More than 50% of small claims issued between 2018 and 2021 were £500 or less and in January a Civil Justice Council report called for reforms to the process for small value claims, including streamlined hearings and better information for litigants . However, the proposals do not take into account that most CCJs are not honored.
In the Roses case, a CCJ last May ordered the florist, Clapham Flowers, to pay Andrea £1,000, including £60 in legal costs and compensation. No payment was received and in August Andrea applied for a warrant to allow bailiffs to enforce the debt. Three months later, Clapham Flowers tried unsuccessfully to have the CCJ fired. This was the last the family heard from the florist and the yard until Observer took place in February.
“When we phoned the court to request information on the status of the warrant, a recorded message indicated that the telephone service was not operational and that questions should be sent by e-mail,” said Andrea. “We sent six unanswered emails.”
A control warrant was issued six months after Andrea’s request when the Observer contacted the Ministry of Justice and a bailiff visited Clapham Flowers. A month later, she received an undated and unsigned letter from the court stating that the bailiff had been unable to meet with the debtor or secure peaceful entry. An email from the bailiff, meanwhile, claimed he had been to the shop but found nothing of value to seize.
Aimee Emmett, director of Clapham Flowers, said Andrea had misinformed the staff of the funeral arrangements, that the CCJ had been issued to the wrong address, that she was unaware of the hearing which rejected her appeal and contested the request for payment left by the bailiff.
HM Courts and Tribunals Service said: “We apologize for the frustrating experience this family has had and would like to reassure others that our staff are working hard to help the public recover the money they are owed.”
The service said it aimed to cut red tape to free up more resources to fund the bailiffs’ action. He suggested that plaintiffs should apply for an information gathering order to establish a debtor’s assets and decide which method would be most effective in enforcing a CCJ. However, enforcement is effective only if the defendant has sufficient assets to cover the debt. Individual traders can have their private assets seized, but directors of limited companies cannot be held personally liable.
Control warrants issued by a high court are more effective than county court warrants because enforcement is carried out by private companies who are paid by results and have the power to force entry into business premises . However, they can only be issued for debts over £600 and the costs, which can be claimed from the debtor, can exceed £700 plus 7% of the sum recovered.
Andrea says the system failed her family. “The florist’s inability to deliver flowers for her funeral has been compounded by the failure of the courts to act on the judgments they have rendered,” she said.
The repair ended in despair
Jacqueline McBride is £11,555 out of pocket because a mechanic liquidated her business after getting a CCJ. She had taken legal action against MOT 4U, trading as Westbere Garage in Canterbury, after failing to return a motorhome she had taken in for repair almost two years ago.
“The director, Ernest Biela, prevented me from recovering my vehicle [and] refused to give me an invoice detailing the work he claims to have done,” she said. “He did not defend himself when I took legal action and has since ignored the CCJ ruling last September. When bailiffs were instructed they were told that Mr Biela had put the company in voluntary liquidation because of my debt.I had intended to sell the motorhome to finance the essential maintenance of my house, but it seems that I have nowhere to go.
Biela, a director of three companies with the same name and two dissolved companies registered at the same address, said the dispute relates to additional repairs authorized by a third party while McBride was in hospital and he said he would now willing to engage in mediation. “I have never tried to avoid responsibility for the care of a customer’s vehicle, but the waters have been muddied by exaggerations,” he said.