Being a business owner means that making agreements and signing contracts can be a regular occurrence. These formal agreements protect your business and ensure that suppliers, business partners and even customers uphold their end of the contract.
The clauses these contracts form the backbone of a business's operations, covering the supply of goods, delivery of services, timeframes for completion and when payments are due. As such not complying with any of the conditions in a contract will often lead to a dispute.
When a party fails to fulfil the terms and conditions in a written agreement, without a lawful or valid excuse, this is referred to as a breach of contract and you must decide how to deal with the breaking of the agreement.
But before you start filling out the court forms, a first step in dealing with a breach is to formally advise the other party with written notice, known as a 'Letter of Claim' or 'Letter Before Action'.
What is a Letter Before Action?
A Letter Before Action is the starting point of many forms of civil legal proceedings and basically sets out your legal claim. It's important to keep in mind that while a Letter Before Action is the first step in taking formal action, it should be the last step in trying to deal with the issue informally.
Calling in lawyers and involving the court at the first inkling of a problem usually won't be helpful. If an aspect of a contract hasn't been complied with or is outstanding, then a polite (but firm) enquiry to the other party on the reason and how they intend to resolve the should be your first act.
Then if informal discussions don't start the process to resolve the issue, sending a Letter Before Action is often a low-cost route to opening a dialogue with the other side to achieve a resolution.
What should a letter before action contain?
Background and context
The letter should start by referencing the specific contract or agreement that has been breached, when it came into force and what it covers. You shouldn't assume that the person who deals with the letter is aware of the existing business relationship and that an agreement in place.
Circumstances and facts
Briefly explain what has occurred and how it is considered to be a breach of the agreement. Ideally point to a specific obligation or clause in the contract and how this obligation hasn't been met. If the failure has resulted in a loss or damage that can be calculated, then this should also be included.
Remedy and resolution
State how the breach can be remedied and how the matter can be resolved to your satisfaction. This resolution will be down to the type of agreement and specifics of the breach, but could involve immediate payment of an outstanding amount, the return of a supplied product, cancelling of a service/contract or a monetary payment to cover a loss.
Timeframe and response
A reasonable period should be given for the other party to comply or at least acknowledge and respond to the letter. A timeframe of at least 14 days would be a minimum, and you also need to comply with any reasonable requests for additional information.
Consequences and legal action
Finally, the whole point of the Letter Before Action is to set out your claim and place the other party on notice that a failure to act could lead to you starting legal proceedings. This should be stated in the letter along with highlighting that you will also be looking to recover any additional costs that are involved with court action from them as well.
Legal Advice with a Breach of Contract Letter.
Before starting down the path of court action, it's always advisable to seek some initial legal advice. While the breach may be an obvious one, a contract dispute lawyer will be able to advise you on your prospects, how any damages would be calculated and what legal proceedings may cost.
Importantly they can also draft your Letter Before Action ensuring it accurately represents your claim and that it complies with the court's Civil Procedure Rules and Pre-action Protocols.
A well-researched and professionally drafted Letter Before Action is your best chance of achieving an early and cost-effective resolution to a contract dispute, so it's well worth getting a solicitor involved from the outset.
If you've a consumer or business issue that you've been unable to resolve with informal discussions or negotiation, the next step is usually civil legal action.
As the Claimant in a claim it will cost you time and money to issue court proceedings and there are three 'tracks' which a claim can be allocated to depending on the complexity and value of the matter.
The majority of disputes and subsequent claims fall into the Small Claims Track which is designed for use without the need of a solicitor. However, in reality, the process can be complex with various procedures, dates and correspondence all to be complied with.
But before starting down the path of issuing a claim, you need to have an understanding of how much it may cost to take someone to the small claims court.
Small Claims Court Fees.
Being the Claimant, you will need to the pay fees to the County Court to start and run the claim. These Court Fees are payable at two key stages of the claim and are required in advance, so ensure you have these available prior to starting your claim.
Should your claim be successful, and a judgment be returned in your favour, all the Court Fees you have paid will be added to the amount the Defendant must pay you.
Small claim court fees and limits and can vary across the UK as well as with different types of claims (personal injury, housing disrepair etc). In this guide we'll be referring to the process in England and Wales for Money Claims.
Small Claims Court Issue Fee.
The Issue Fee is required when you first submit your Claim Form to the court and start your claim.
A claim can be submitted with a paper claim form or via the Internet using the Money Claim Online service. The benefit of submitting the claim online is that the Issue Fees are slightly lower, and you won’t have to print and post the documents. You will however need to register for an online account and you can’t use this service if you don’t know the exact amount you are claiming for.
Regardless of which method you use to submit your claim, the Issue Fee will be based on the amount you are claiming or the amount that you are estimating the claim is worth.
Correct as at 1st May 2018, but please see EX50 for full details and latest fees.
If using the online service this fee is payable by credit or debit card prior to submission. If you use a paper claim form, you will need to include a cheque or postal order for the correct fee.
If your claim isn't disputed or defended, then judgment will be awarded in your favour and no other court fees will be payable.
Small Claims Hearing Fee.
If the claim is defended, then the case will need to proceed to a small claim hearing unless an agreement or settlement is reached beforehand. The court will send both parties a proposed allocation to the small claims track along with a Directions Questionnaire.
The Directions Questionnaire will ask you details about your claim in preparation for the hearing, including proposed court location, any expert evidence, witnesses and any hearing dates to avoid.
Once both parties have submitted a Directions Questionnaire, this will lead to an order from the court giving a date for the hearing, exchange of evidence and a date for paying the hearing fee.
As with the Issue Fee, the Hearing Fee will be based on the amount claimed:
Fees correct as at 1st May 2018, but please see EX50 for full details and latest information.
Small Claims Mediation Service Cost.
The Directions Questionnaire will also ask if you agree to your claim being referred to the Small Claims Mediation Service. If both parties agree to this, then a mediation appointment will be organised by telephone and a mediator will attempt to reach a settlement over the course of an hour or so.
The HMCTS Small Claims Mediation Service is free of cost so should be seriously considered as an option. Also, mediation appointments will be available quicker than court hearings and you won't incur the Hearing Fee if the claim is settled at mediation.
If mediation fails, then the claim will proceed to a hearing and the Hearing Fee will become due.
Small Claims Expert Costs.
Depending on your dispute, you may require an expert to provide evidence to support your claim. You will need the court to grant permission to use an expert and if permission is granted you will then need to pay the expert to produce written evidence.
As with court fees, if using an expert has been approved and your claim is successful, the cost of the expert will be recovered from the defendant up to a maximum of £750.
What costs can be recovered in small claims?
If your claim is successful, as well as the court fees and approved expert costs, there may be other items you can claim and recover from the losing party.
There are various rules and limits around what can be claimed so it is always a good idea to get legal advice before starting your claim. Without legal advice then there is a risk you could miss out on recovering costs that you are entitled to claim from the opposing party.
Examples of small claim costs.
Unpaid Invoice or Loan debt of £1,400.00
£70.00 - Online Issue Fee (due when you submit your claim)
Faulty Goods valued at £2,800.00
£105.00 - Online Issue Fee (due when you submit your claim)
Poor Service or Workmanship costing £450.00
£35.00 - Online Issue Fee (due when you submit your claim)
How much does a lawyer cost for the small claims court?
Although the small claims process is designed to be conducted without legal representation, many people still choose to use a solicitor and can recover some of these costs as part of their claim.
The way legal representation costs for small claim are calculated is complex and relates to the claim amount, how the Claim Form is served and the number of Defendants. There are then further costs that can be claimed if judgment is entered which depends on the amount claimed and how the judgment was obtained.
Correct as at 1st May 2018, but please see CPR Part 45 for full details and latest fees.
Therefore, if you choose to use a solicitor for you small claim, you can typically expect to receive around £60.00 to £100.00 awarded towards your legal costs if your claim was successful.
The relatively low legal representative costs that are recoverable in the Small Claims Court is the reason you don't see 'no win no fee' funding being an option when dealing with small claims. So, if you do decide to seek legal help with a claim ensure you look for a law firm offering fixed fee small claims services.
Do I need a solicitor for the small claims court?
While you may not be able to recover all your legal costs as part of your claim, there are still some compelling reasons to consider instructing a solicitor for a small claim.
Firstly (and most importantly) a solicitor will be able to advise you on the law and your prospects of success. Spending money on issuing and attending a court hearing only to have no basis for a claim would be an expensive mistake.
Secondly a solicitor will be an expert on litigation and the court process, ensuring you comply with the relevant directions/deadlines and that your claim is comprehensive. If your claim is significant, missing out or even miscalculating an item such as your interest entitlement can prove costly.
Finally, even if your claim is successful and judgment is awarded in your favour you may still need to enforce that judgment. A lawyer can advise you on the most cost effective and productive enforcement methods that are available.
Should I take someone to the small claims court?
Taking a person or a business to the small claims court isn't free and not without risk. Knowing the potential costs along when fees will require paying is likely to influence your decision on if it is worthwhile process to undertake.
However, if your claim has merit and you can afford the court fees, then many of your costs will be awarded back to you should your small claim be successful.
Differences of opinion can arise in both personal and working life. Most of the time people are able to resolve matters between themselves but unfortunately that isn't always the case and matters can escalate when feelings are hurt or points of view are not appreciated.
Decisions then have to be made about when to escalate matters and even consult a solicitor. But before issuing the war cry 'You'll be hearing from my solicitor!' take a moment and try to keep a few things in mind.
Keep calm and carry on talking.
Whether your dispute is with an individual (such as a neighbour or tradesperson), a group (club or organisation) or a large company, anger and stress won't help. Clouded judgement and impulsive action will only make matters worse and provide a bad impression towards your reasonableness.
Keep focused on the specific issue and try to engage in a calm, polite discussion with the individual or business representative. Tell them your problem, what it will take from them to resolve it and make sure you listen to their response or any alternatives offered.
Use the correct channels.
Talk to the right person or department. For example if your dispute is about a faulty item you have purchased, then a manager or customer service representative will be more able to help you get it replaced than a trainee sales assistant. If you are not sure who to talk to, make polite enquiries until you find the right person.
If you cannot get the matter resolved, consider whether there is a complaints procedure that you can follow, and then do so. Also find out if there is an independent trade body such as the Financial Conduct Authority or an ombudsman to whom you can appeal to following your complaint.
Don't make threats.
Try not to talk about taking legal action, suing them, or dragging them in court until you have tried everything you can reasonably do to resolve the matter. Taking an adversarial approach at the very start may limit your options for a quick, simple and cost effective solution.
If an ombudsman does becomes involved, they may recommend mediation to resolve the dispute which you should be open to.
Keep a record of events.
If matters do need legal action and in extreme cases have to go to court, you will need to provide evidence of the problem. So keeping notes, photographs, documents and anything else that is relevant will be important. This documentation will also help you demonstrate all you have done to try to resolve the issue before being forced in taking legal action.
Make notes of any conversations you have with the date/time and who you spoke to, also keep copies of any letters or emails you have sent.
You will be hearing from my solicitor.
If you have satisfied yourself that you have done absolutely everything possible to sort things out but have been met with no success, then it's time to consult a solicitor for legal advice.
If you have a solid case then quite often a letter or intervention from a law firm can bring surprisingly quick and positive results and won't cost the earth. But depending how far you wish to pursue the matter it could ultimately end up in court which will take time and money (see our guide on how much it costs to take someone to the Small Claims Court).
A solicitor will be able to advise you fully on your dispute, including your chances of a successful legal claim, the evidence that will be needed and what costs are involved.
Just don't invoke us in anger!