What is a civil case?
Civil court cases arise where an individual or a business believe their rights have been infringed in some way. Different types of civil claims include;
- A business may claim that they are owed money - contract law
- An individual may wish to claim compensation for injuries suffered in a road traffic accident - the tort of negligence
- The owner of a house may wish to prevent another person walking on their land and seek an injunction - the tort of trespass to land
This is not a complete list of civil cases; in fact there are hundreds of different types of claims which may be brought in the civil courts.
The first step in a civil action
Taking someone to court is usually the last option in a civil dispute. Usually businesses and individuals try to resolve their problem through negotiation. For example, if you buy a faulty DVD from the shop you would take the DVD back and usually they will replace it. In other situations you may write to the other side to complain, the majority of civil disputes are resolved at this stage and there is no need for a court hearing. This will often lead to a compromise being reached and once again there is no need for a court hearing.
Advice from a solicitor
If the other side in a dispute will not settle the claim through negotiation then the aggrieved person must decide if they wish to take the case any further. The usual next stage is to consult a solicitor, they will then write to the other side on your behalf. However when the other side will not negotiate or compromise you may need to start a civil claim. The first thing to check before taking someone to court is do they have the money to pay you should you win the case? If they don't then you may be wasting your time and money!
Taking a Civil Case to Court
Going to court means expense! There will be a court fee, solicitor's costs and of course there is no guarantee that you will win the case. The civil justice system was reformed in 1999 following the Woolf Report, Access to Justice (1996). These reforms attempt to simplify the procedures and terminology and speed the process up. Parties to a civil case are now encouraged to follow a pre-action protocol, this is a list of things to be done, and information which should be given to the other side before court proccedings are started. If the pre-action protocol is not followed then the party at fault may be liable for certain costs when the case comes before the court.
Which Court Should You Start Your Civil Claim In?
There are two Courts of First Instance which hear civil claims;
- County Court
- High Court
For cases where the claim is for £15,000 or less the case must be started in the County Court. For larger claims you can usually choose which court you start your claim in. However, the High Court and County Courts Jurisdiction Order 1991 lays down some restrictions as follows;
- Personal Injury cases for less than £50,000 must be started in the County Court
- Defamation actions must be started in the High Court
Cases can be transferred from one court to the other for the actual trial.
How to issue a claim
You need to complete a claim form, called a N1, the High Court or County Court office will give you a booklet explaining how to fill it in.
Defending a claim
When a defendant receives the claim court from the court they may do one of the following things;
- Admit the claim and pay the full amount
- Dispute the claim by sending a N9 (Acknowledgment of Service) or a defence to the court within 14 days
- Do nothing
If the defendant does nothing then the claimant can ask the court to make an order that the defendant pays the claim in full and the costs, this is known as an order in default. If a case is defended then the court will allocate the case to the most suitable track.
Allocation of Cases
The decison on which track should be used is made by the District Judge in the County Court or the Master in the High Court. The Small Claims Track This is normally used for disputes under £5,000, apart from cases involving personal injuries or housing where the limit is £1,000 The Fast Track This is used for straightforward disputes between £5,000 and £15,000 The Multi-Track This is for cases over £15,000 or for complex cases of any amount To help the court decide which track a case should be allocated to both parties to a civil dispute are sent an allocation questionnaire.
Small Claims Track
The Small Claims Track This is a fairly cheap and informal way of settling small disputes. The procedure in the small claims track People are encouraged to bring their own case so that costs are kept to a minimum. It is possible to use a solicitor in the small claims track, however, the winner cannot claim the cost of their solicitor from the losing side. Judges in small claim cases play an active role in the proceedings, asking questions and ensuring that both parties explain all their important points. Advantages of the Small Claims Track
- The cost of bringing a case is low, especially for claims under £1,000
- If you lose you will not have to pay for the other side's solicitor
- People can bring the case themselves and do not need to use a solicitor
- The procedure is quick
- The District Judge helps the parties explain their case
- Disadvantages of the Small Claims Track
- Where the other side is a business they are more likely to use a solicitor, this puts an individual representing themselves at a disadvantage
- Research shows that District Judges are not always helpful to unrepresented parties
- Even if you win your case it doesn't mean the other side will pay you. Only about 60% of successful claimants actually receive all the money awarded by the court
The Fast Track This track is used for claims between £5,000 and £15,000, personal injury and housing cases from £1,000 - £15,000 are also dealt with as fast track cases. For fast track cases the court will set down a very strict timetable for pre-trial matters. The aim of this is to prevent either party from wasting time and adding unnecessary costs. Once a case is set down for a hearing the court aims to deal with the case within 30 weeks. A fast track trial will usually be heard by a circuit judge and will follow a more formal procedure than the small claims track. In an attempt to speed up the trial the hearing will be limited to a maximum of one day, with usually only one expert witness being allowed.
Claims for more than £15,000 are usually allocated to the multi-track. If the case was started in the County Court then it is likely to be tried there, however it can be sent to the High Court. The case will be heard by a circuit judge who will also be expected to manage the case from the moment it is allocated to the multi-track.
The County Court Most major towns have a County Court. The usual types of cases they hear are;
- Contact and tort claims
- Cases for recovery of land
- Disputes over partnerships, trusts and inheritance up to £30,000
Some County Courts also have jurisdiction to hear divorce cases. The County Court can hear small claims track, fast track and multi-track cases and in 2003 approximately one and a half million cases were started in the County Courts. Most cases however do not proceed to trial and in 2005 only 17,318 cases were heard in the County Courts, with a further 47,521 cases being heard in the small claims procedure. Cases are heard in open court and members of the public are allowed to attend, apart from cases involving family matters, i.e. proceedings under the Children Act 1989.
The High Court The High Court consists of three divisions; Queens Bench Division, Chancery Division & the Family Division
- Queens Bench Division
The Queens Bench Division deals with contract and tort (civil wrongs) cases which are worth more than £50,000. Although cases over £15,000 can be started in the Queens Bench Division, the intention is that only multi-track cases should be dealt with in the QBD. Usually a case is tried by a single judge but there is a right to jury trial for fraud, defamation, malicious prosecution and false imprisonment cases.
- Chancery Division
The cases dealt with by the Chancery Division are those involving insolvency, for both businesses and individuals, and the enforcement of mortgages, disputes relating to trust property and copyright matters. This Division also deals with contested probate matters. Cases are heard by a single judge and juries are never used in this division.
- Family Division
The Family Division hears cases involved with wardship and any matter relating to children under the Children Act 1989. It also deals with such things as nullity of marriage and grants probate in non-contentious probate cases. Cases are heard by a single judge and juries are never used in this Division.