A court will expect you to have taken all reasonable steps to resolve your complaint before starting court action. Below is an easy to read overview of this procedure and how it works. This is not designed to be an exhaustive guide, so do check http://www.hmcourts-service.gov.uk/infoabout/claims/index.htm for further information about courts, fees and the necessary paperwork. (In Scotland you need to go through the Sheriff courts and this process is slighty different. See http://www.scotcourts.gov.uk/sheriff/)
Using Statutory questionnaires
You could use a statutory questionnaire before taking court action. Statutory questionnaires allow you to put your case to the service provider and ask questions.
Using a questionnaire does not commit you to taking your claim to court. Any reply you receive will help you to decide whether the treatment you received was discriminatory. Sometimes, receiving a questionnaire can prompt the service provider to reconsider your complaint. The service provider's answers to the questionnaire can also be used as evidence in court.
If the service provider does not answer the questionnaire, a court can treat this as evidence that the service provider did indeed discriminate against you.
The questionnaires are in two parts; you complete the first part and the second part is for the service provider to respond to you. In England and Wales, you are known as the claimant. The service provider is called the defendant.
In your part of the questionnaire, you explain why you believe you have been discriminated against, and list questions for the defendant to answer about the treatment that you received.
You then send the questionnaire to the service provider so that they can complete their section. They should give their version of events, answer your questions and then return the completed questionnaire to you.
Time limits for the questionnaire
You should use the questionnaire before issuing a claim at the county court. You must send the questionnaire to the service provider within six months from the date of the discriminatory treatment.
Once you have sent the questionnaire to the service provider, they have eight weeks in which to provide a response. If, during these eight weeks, your time limit for making your claim at a county court is due, do not miss this deadline or you will probably lose your chance to take a legal claim.
You can explain on the claim form or in a covering letter to the court that you have sent the service provider a statutory questionnaire, and include details of the date that it was sent and the date that you expect a response. You could also send the service provider a letter informing them that you have had to start proceedings in order to protect your legal position. You can say that you would be prepared to withdraw your claim if a settlement could be reached informally.
You can find further details and download a copy of the statutory questionniare through the Office of Public Sector Information website; http://http://www.opsi.gov.uk/si/si2007/uksi_20071263_en_3#sch2
Making a claim through the county court system
You should start proceedings in the county court for the district in which the service provider lives or works, or in the court for the district in which the discrimination took place. You will need to make a claim within 6 months of the discrimination which took place.
If you wish to bring a claim, you must send or take the following to the court:
All county courts have form N1 and will give you copies for free. They also have leaflets about bringing a claim and on current fees. The form N1 starts legal action so should be filled in very carefully, as it is the first thing the court will read.
Be very clear and give details of all the things which have happened which you think are as a result of the discrimination that you have suffered. You can get guidance from the court on how to fill the form in. The claim form will also need a statement of what damages you expect. If a precise figure cannot be included (which is usually be the case where compensation for injury to feelings is claimed), the value should be estimated as up to £5,000; between £5,000 and £15,000; or more than £15,000. If you are not sure, you can put something like: 'I cannot say how much I expect to recover'.
How much does it cost?
It does cost money to go to court. The fee you have to pay to the court depends on the amount you are claiming, including interest. There are exemptions for paying court fees if one or more of the following applies to you:
If you show that a payment of a court fee would involve undue hardship to you, the court manager may rule that you do not have to pay the fee, or that you can pay a reduced fee. This is called fee remission. More details on this can be had from the court and their leaflets.
Settling your case
You can agree to settle your case with the defendant at any time before the hearing. But if you reach an agreement with the defendant to settle your claim, you cannot then change your mind and ask the court to hear the complaint.
The 'right track'
If the defendant decides to defend him or herself against your claim, the court will then allocate your claim to the appropriate 'track'. To help decide this, the court will issue what is known as an 'allocation questionnaire'.
You must complete and return the allocation questionnaire within the time specified on the form and with the fee required. A judge will then allocate your claim to 'the small claims track', 'the fast track' or 'the multi-track'. You will be sent a notice telling you which track your claim has been allocated to and what you must do to prepare your case for trial or final hearing.
Which track your claim is allocated to depends on its value and other matters to do with the case.
The small claims track is intended to be a simple and informal way of resolving disputes, which can be used without the help of a solicitor. The procedures for the fast and multi-tracks are more complicated. If your claim is allocated to either of them, you will probably need advice from a solicitor or a legal advice service.
What you might get from your claim
If you are successful with your claim, a county court can give you:
After the hearing
If you do not agree with the judge's decision, you can appeal. You must be able to show that:
If you are unsuccessful in your appeal, you may have to pay the defendant's costs.
If you have succeeded in your claim but the defendant has failed to pay you the compensation, you will need to ask the court to take more action. Court fees are payable for enforcement action but you will be reimbursed by the defendant if you are successful in getting the money you are owed. You can get leaflets on enforcing your judgment from the county court.