People left out of pocket by traders say UK county court system ‘unfit for purpose’

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Hazel Rose’s coffin was supposed to have been adorned with her favourite spring flowers for her funeral in March last year. But she was sent to rest in a bare coffin when the sheaf, ordered from a London florist, failed to arrive. A year later, her family is still awaiting a refund – despite having taken their case to the small claims court.

“It was extremely distressing for the family when my mother’s flowers did not arrive and it would have been a consolation to have the case resolved by the first anniversary of her death,” said Hazel’s daughter, Andrea.

Instead, she and her brother, Anthony, have so far spent £143 in court fees trying to reclaim the £110 they paid for the flowers. Andrea says principle rather than money has prompted her long battle. The company disputes the claim and says it was given the wrong time for the delivery.

The case exposes gaps in the legal protection for consumers and underlines why some campaigners say the county court money claims system is unfit for purpose.

A county court money claim is the last resort for customers who are left out of pocket when a trader fails to deliver. The customer files a claim with the court and pays a fee, starting from £35, and the trader is sent a letter asking it to pay up. If it doesn’t, the customer can ask for a judgment.

If the court decides in the customer’s favour, a county court judgment (CCJ) is issued, ordering the defendant to pay the debt plus associated costs and appropriate compensation. This CCJ will blight their credit record for six years, but it is not a criminal offence for defendants to ignore the court ruling. If they do, claimants must pay further fees to enforce it with no certainty of success. For claims worth less than £300, the cost of pursuing the defendant can exceed the sum they owe.

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Figures from the Registry Trust show that only 16% of CCJs in England and Wales were recorded by the courts as satisfied between 2020 and 2021, which means the vast majority went unpaid. There is no data on how many orders were settled without courts being informed.

According to Arun Chauhan, the founder of Tenet Law, the system is unfit for purpose for claims under £3,000. “My experience is the process, time, stress, and money involved are disproportionate, certainly against rogue traders who know the chase to recover money is often off-putting so people just let it go,” he said. “There needs to be a speedier system with an automated recovery process using bailiffs if the defendant fails to provide evidence to the court that they’ve paid.”

More than 50% of small claims issued between 2018 and 2021 were for £500 or less and, in January, a report by the Civil Justice Council called for reforms to the process for low-value claims, including streamlined hearings and better information for litigants. However, the proposals do not address the fact that most CCJs are not honoured.

In the Roses’ case, a CCJ last May ordered the florist, Clapham Flowers, to pay Andrea £1,000, including the £60 court fees and compensation. No payment was received and in August Andrea applied for a warrant of control to allow bailiffs to enforce the debt. Three months later, Clapham Flowers tried and failed to have the CCJ dismissed. That was the last the family heard from both the florist and the court until the Observer intervened in February.

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The failure of the florist has been compounded by the failure of the courts

“When we phoned the court to ask about progress with the warrant, a recorded message said that the phone service is not operational and that queries should be emailed,” said Andrea. “We emailed six times with no response.”

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A warrant of control was issued six months after Andrea’s application when the Observer contacted the Ministry of Justice, and a bailiff visited Clapham Flowers. A month later, she received an undated, unsigned letter from the court stating that the bailiff had been unable to meet the debtor or gain peaceful entry. An email from the bailiff, meanwhile, claimed that he had visited the shop but found nothing of value to seize.

Aimee Emmett, manager of Clapham Flowers, said Andrea had misinformed staff of the funeral arrangements, that the CCJ was issued to the wrong address, that she was unaware of the hearing that dismissed her appeal and that she was contesting the demand for payment left by the bailiff.

HM Courts and Tribunals Service said: “We apologise for the frustrating experience this family has had and would like to reassure others that our staff work hard to help the public claim back money owed to them.”

The service said that it was aiming to cut red tape to free more resources to fund bailiff action. It suggested that claimants should apply for an Order to Obtain Information to establish a debtor’s assets and decide which method would be most effective to enforce a CCJ. However, enforcement is effective only if the defendant has assets sufficient to cover the debt. Sole traders can have their private possessions seized, but directors of limited companies cannot be held personally liable.

Writs of control issued by a high court are more effective than county court warrants, since enforcement is carried out by private companies who are paid by results and have the authority to force entry to commercial premises. However, they can be issued only for debts of more than £600 and fees, which may be claimed from the debtor, can exceed £700, plus 7% of the recovered sum.

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Andrea says the system has let her family down. “The failure of the florist to deliver flowers for her funeral has been compounded by the failure of the courts to act on the judgments they have made,” she said.

Repair ended in despair

Jacqueline McBride is £11,555 out of pocket because a garage owner liquidated his company after she obtained a CCJ. She had brought a money claim against MOT 4U, trading as Westbere Garage in Canterbury, after it failed to return a motorhome she took in for repairs nearly two years ago.

“The director, Ernest Biela, has prevented me collecting my vehicle [and] declined to give me an invoice detailing the work he claims to have done,” she said. “He didn’t defend himself when I brought a county court claim and has since ignored the CCJ awarded last September. When bailiffs were instructed, they were advised that Mr Biela had put the company into voluntary liquidation because of my claim. I was planning to sell the motorhome to finance essential maintenance to my home, but it seems I have nowhere else to turn.”

Biela, director of three similarly named firms and two dissolved ones registered to the same address, said the dispute concerned additional repairs authorised by a third party while McBride was in hospital and he said he would now be willing to engage with mediation. “I have never tried to avoid the responsibility of care with respect to a customer’s vehicle, but the waters have been muddied with exaggerations,” he said.

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