What do you do if you’ve made a complaint to a business but they’ve turned you down? Or worse, it ignores you?

For most people, what happens next all depends on how straightforward – or affordable – the options are. If taking things to the next stage seems pricey or difficult, the less likely people are to fight back.

The good news is in many sectors, from finance to energy, there’s an Ombudsman or Alternative Dispute Resolution Service (ADR) scheme that you can go to if a business doesn’t play ball. These schemes are generally free alternatives to the courts, so you don’t incur costs or complications. In short, they are a great way to get a fair hearing without forking out any cash, either in fees or legal representation – and in (almost) all sets of circumstances, you can go to court afterwards if you reject the Ombudsman or ADR’s findings.

But if there isn’t a dispute resolution scheme, then your only option is to go to court. And in the majority of cases, that will involve the Small Claims Court.

This disparity is desperately unfair in my opinion, because some of the most complained about industries in the UK don’t have an ADR scheme. The most glaring omission is the retail sector. Complaints about misbehaving shops make up the vast majority of the enquiries from readers I receive. This is particularly frustrating, because we have some exceptionally strong laws governing the sale of goods and services, your rights if things don’t work and your entitlement to a refund. Yet if a shop chooses to ignore these laws, your only option is going to court.

So how hard is it to do this? I roped in my fellow TV expert leading solicitor, Gary Rycroft, to come up with a plain English guide to your rights.

About the Small Claims Court

The whole concept of taking legal action can be rather intimidating and might seem too expensive to be a realistic option if you’re toying with taking a complaint further. That’s why the Small Claims Court was set up – to provide people with a cheaper, more accessible route to the courts.

If you’ve lost money as a result of the actions of a business or organisation, bought something that doesn’t work or been sold a service that hasn’t been provided or have a dispute over a contract, then you could bring a case through the Small Claims Court. It’s not for everything though. You can’t bring expensive claims, disputes over things like slander, or other issues where you would need the services of a specialist solicitor.

How where you live affects your claim

There are variations in the process for making a claim through the courts. The most significant difference is the amount you can claim. In England and Wales the maximum is £10,000, in Scotland it’s £5,000 and in Northern Ireland it’s £5,000 too. The courts/process all have slightly different names too (the Gov.UK website now confusingly calls the process ‘making a claim for money’), so I’ve gone with Small Claims Court to cover all the schemes to avoid confusion.

You can find out more about the process and get started with an online claim here:

Despite these differences the whole point of the court is to make things simple, so you don’t pay lots in fees.

How does it work?

The online forms guide you through the process of making a claim and are designed to be as straightforward as possible. The fees for issuing a claim in the Small Claims Court vary by country too – but you can find calculators online that should give you an idea of what you’d need to pay upfront. It can be as little as £35 but if you’re claiming £5,000 to £10,000 you could be looking at £455. Bear in mind that leaving the claim amount section of the form blank could result in the maximum fee applying, so have a guess if you aren’t sure.

Small Claims cases are a little more straightforward if you know how much money you are seeking. You’ll be asked to provide details about why you are seeking this sum, what’s happened and what supporting evidence you have. You can potentially claim interest too.

Forms can be downloaded, completed online or obtained from the courts if you prefer.

The process also gives you the option of mediation, which is definitely worthwhile considering if the option is available for your claim. You can still pursue the case if you are unhappy with how mediation goes.

One of the big differences between the Small Claims Court and other types of legal action is you can’t recover your costs from the other party even if you win (like solicitor’s fees, for example) but you can get back the court fees you’ve spent. Good news though – if you lose, the defendant can’t claim their costs back from you.

If you are worried about the process of making a claim, don’t forget that the system is designed so you don’t have to pay a professional to help you, unless you want to. The Government websites of England/Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have guidance on the various support options available if you need help navigating the system. 

Have I left it too late to make a claim?

You have six years from the point the dispute occurred (usually when you bought the goods or services you’re complaining about or the incident happened). There are exceptions to this. For example, you might not realise there’s a problem with something you’ve been sold until much further down the line. If time is ticking on though, don’t hesitate if you intend to pursue the matter.

Is there any point in going to court?

This is the question I get asked the most by unhappy readers who are considering legal action via the Small Claims Court. Ultimately, the answer is: ‘How strongly do you feel about what’s happened to you?’ But here are a few reasons why you might want to consider taking things further.

Firstly, people using the Small Claims Court can and do regularly win their cases. Often the mediation option gives a business or organisation pause for thought. However, the court itself has been known to side with regular people seeking help. This is particularly common when actual laws have been ignored by businesses, like flight cancellation compensation or the failure to refund people for products that have packed in or services that have not been fully provided.

Next up, business pragmatism. I know from bitter experience that some businesses will refuse to listen to reason when I’m trying to resolve some of the problems you contact me about. However, the possibility of a court judgement, even from a so-called ‘lower’ court can force them to change their minds. While a Small Claims Court decision can be appealed, it’s cheaper and more effective to settle to stop the matter going further. Because if a single court case goes all the way to the Court of Appeal or Supreme Court, then that case could potentially become a legal precedent, which can be very, very costly for not just the business, but their whole business sector. Remember the PPI mis-selling compensation scandal? Banks fought and lost that legal challenge and the costs to them were mind-boggling.

Some of the people I speak to who take legal action aren’t that bothered about the money, it’s about forcing businesses to change their ways. This can be complicated (and pricey if the business appeals to a higher court) but if you’re feeling like flexing your campaign muscles, then this is your entry point.

But ultimately, the Small Claims Court gives you a voice. It gives you the means to say to a business or organisation that you are unhappy with how they’ve treated you. You will know – no matter what – that you’ve done all that you can to get justice. And that’s priceless.

Featured in Times Money Mentor – Martyn James


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