Big mystery of Small Claims Court is why more people do not use it

If you've ever been fobbed off by a shop owner, travel agent, dry cleaners, PVC window installer or landlord when making a complaint…

If you've ever been fobbed off by a shop owner, travel agent, dry cleaners, PVC window installer or landlord when making a complaint regarding goods or services you'll understand why some consumers are resorting to an inexpensive and effective complaint service, the Small Claims Court.

The court's claim limit has increased to £1,000 (€1,269.74) from £600.

For just £6 an applicant or claimant, usually a consumer, may lodge a complaint with the Small Claims Registrar in the local district court.

In 1998, there were more than 1,000 applicants to the Dublin Metropolitan Small Claims Court, the largest in the State. By July 2nd of this year there were in excess of 600.

Although the court is being used increasingly, the big mystery is why more people don't avail of the service. According to the Dublin Metropolitan Small Claims Court office, it may be that "They're not aware of it or they think it's expensive".

Another reason may be that they are intimidated by going into a courtroom or sitting in front of a judge. The good news for these people is that it is designed to be a very informal process.

Unlike other court proceedings, a solicitor is not needed, making it an affordable option for complaints involving less than £1,000. The Small Claims Judge presides over the court without a jury and asks the claimant (or applicant) and "the respondent" to tell their stories in their own words.

The majority of complaints are settled in advance through a mediation process, guided by the Small Claims Registrar. The first round of a complaint is the default procedure. The registrar sends out a copy of the complaint to the respondent. If the applicant's claim is not disputed by the respondent within 15 days, the applicant will swear an affidavit saying no response has been made to the claim and at the district court judge's discretion, an order will be made for the amount claimed to be paid.

If the respondent replies, a copy of this letter is sent to the applicant. If the two sides cannot agree on a settlement then they go to court.

The decision to go to court is made by the two parties, but once it goes to court the judge's decision is final. However, the decision may be appealed to the Circuit Court - then the services of a solicitor are required.

Family Money recently spent a morning in the Dublin Metropolitan Small Claims Court to see if it really was an accessible, informal option for consumers.

District Court 54 in the Old Richmond Hospital in North Brunswick Street is a small but bright room overlooking the main entrance. Just before the court begins at 10.30 a.m. a dozen or so people wearing suits or their Sunday best take their place among the several rows of chairs. A few minutes later, the judge enters the room and we all rise.

Following a few organisational matters, the first case is called. Without a solicitor in sight, the claimant takes the witness stand and swears on the Bible that they will "tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God".

The judge asks the witness to explain the story briefly and show whatever evidence might be relevant. In this case, it appears that a dry cleaner has damaged a woman's suit through use of bleach. She holds up the suit to show the damage. Next, the dry cleaner gives his story and talks about the processes used in his premises. After the judge asks both parties a few more questions, including how old was the suit when sent for dry-cleaning, the judge awards the applicant £175 of her claim for £234. The whole process takes less than five minutes.

The rest of the cases go pretty much the same way, with the longest case taking 25 minutes. Most of the complaints are against dry cleaners, with one against a language school and another against a PVC window installer. Straightforward language is used throughout the proceedings and the judge shows a good mix of patience and insistence that replies are kept brief and to the point.

On this particular morning the majority of cases are settled in favour of the consumer. Only a few claimants were awarded their entire claim amount while the majority are given a partial amount and two are awarded nothing.

There is no doubt that this is not an intimidating place to have your complaint heard while there is also the benefit of a legally-binding outcome.

Fortunately, those who may still be intimidated by the process have the option of a free Small Claims Court Advice service. This is available through the European Consumer Advice Centre at 13a O'Connell Street.

Barrister Colin Daly helps applicants fill out the paperwork, talk to the registrar, write response letters and if they are going to court, practise telling their story under oath to the judge. He may also ask them questions similar to those the judge would ask. On request, Mr Daly attends the court on the day the case is heard.

In Dublin, the Small Claims Court meets two or three times a month. There are fewer sittings in District Courts with a lower number of applicants. The first case with the new £1,000 limit may take place in four months time in Dublin, as the next sitting is in September.

As more consumers become frustrated with service providers using the "wear down the customer" tactic, they may decide they're not going to take it anymore. The Small Claims Court gives them the opportunity to sort out such complaints.

The latest version of A Guide to the Small Claims Court is being published by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform this week. It is available either from the department or from your local District Court. If you believe you have a case, applications for a Small Claims Court hearing are available from local district courts.