Judge Marie Quirke brings such a cocktail of kindness, crankiness and show business to her sittings of the Small Claims Court that comparisons with television’s Judge Judy are simply too obvious to ignore.
While the hearings can be entertaining, with stifled laughs echoing frequently through the chamber, it would be wrong to underestimate the seriousness of the decisions made or the care with which justice is dispensed in Court 23 of the Four Courts in Dublin city centre.
The idea of this people’s court is to allow disputes be settled outside of the wildly expensive, hideously complex and often terrifying traditional legal system, with those taking actions and defending themselves typically appearing without legal representation and only a nominal fee paid by claimants.
And with the financial ceiling at which disputes can be heard set at a relatively modest €2,000, most cases could best be described as minor.
But while a dispute over a €150 car service or a poolside bar’s closure might seem petty to some, the sense of injustice or righteous indignation felt by those impacted is real.
The cases are handled with a deftness and a seriousness by Judge Quirke that neither claimants or respondents can find fault with. This judge finds fault often, though, and she is quick to put manners on those she feels are being disrespectful of proceedings or offering evidence that is flimsy or based on hearsay.
The Small Claims Court sits once or twice a month in Dublin, with other dates in courtrooms across the State. Last year the court dealt with 2,159 claims, a slight increase on the previous year but down 39 per cent on the 3,557 incoming claims in 2020 and a 53 per cent decrease on the 4,627 pre-Covid in 2019.
Of the 2022 claims, 462 were dealt with by the court, with the vast majority – some 1,594 – settled out of court, including where applications fell outside the scope of the rules for small claims.
Last Monday, the court’s list was long.
A man called Abbas takes the stand. He’s taking an action against a contractor after concrete was splattered on two cars parked outside his home, causing damage of more than €1,500.
“Do you want to come up here because I want to have a chat with you?” the judge asks Abbas. She is not dealing with the substance of his claim today, she explains, but needs to address the summons. It must be sent by registered post but Abbas has claimed the contractor won’t answer his door so the court’s permission is needed to allow it be served by ordinary post. The permission is granted and the case is adjourned.
Next up is Imelda. She says a garage charged her €150 to do nothing to her car. Representing the garage is Jonathan who was sent by his brother, the owner. The case hits an immediate roadblock when it emerges that the claim has been lodged against Jonathan’s brother and not the company name. Judge Quirke says proceedings cannot continue today but she amends the claim to record the correct defendant.
Imelda, still in her coat and white beanie, is told she will have to come back another day. She is dismayed and asks Judge Quirke for advice.
“I can’t advise; I am the judge,” she says.
It sounds harsh in print there’s a gentleness to her voice. Imelda addresses the court again.
“I’m just thinking about it,” she says in a quiet voice. “It is a small sum, if we were talking about thousands of euro it would be different.”
Julie-Ann takes the stand. She’s lodged a claim against a plumber for €1,300 for bathroom refit. Despite multiple promises, he never showed up. He hasn’t shown up today either so that means it’s bad news for him. Judge Quirke makes a court order demanding he pay up.
Violet takes the stand. Last year she took her parents out for a Mother’s Day lunch but when the family came home they discovered they were locked out.
A locksmith was at their front door within the hour and the door was forced open with what looked like a flat shovel after which it was never right again.
“The door was perfect now it does not lock properly, they are not secure in their home,” Violet says. “They’re elderly and can’t be dealing with a broken door.”
Judge Quirke asks Violet if she has a photograph of the door.
“I do,” she says Violet, “It is very dark,” she adds as she hands over some photocopied pictures.
“I don’t want to see the locking mechanism, I want to see the door,” Judge Quirke says. “That is not clear to me, I am not being difficult.”
Lisa is representing the locksmiths. She says a repair offer has been made and adds that the company will have an independent hinge expert to call out to assess the situation.
Violet says she wants a new door.
Judge Quirke makes it clear she can’t expect to get a better door and notes that the locksmiths are offering to put the door back to the position that it was in – literally and figuratively.
She points out that there are two elderly people not secure in their home and demands the door is repaired within 24 hours saying the case will come before the court again in October “to make sure that the door has been put back into the condition it was before the locksmiths entered their lives”.
Next up is Brian who’s taking an action against Budget Travel. Or is it Club Travel? There was confusion at an earlier hearing as Club Travel owns Budget Travel. In any event there’s no confusion now and today is about the meat of the matter.
He is claiming €572 – a quarter of his family’s accommodation costs for a holiday in the Algarve in 2022 – on the basis that an advertised poolside bar, a cafe and snack bar were shuttered. He is also claiming €80 for an airport transfer, he says, that did not show up.
Judge Quirke asks if he read the terms and conditions of his package holiday and he says he did. She sounds surprised. He modifies his answer to say he read most of them.
She reads the key clauses to the court including a line that says “some amenities and facilities might be subject to closure as a result of Covid”. She asks Brian if he ticked the box accepting those terms and conditions.
“I suppose I did, yeah,” he says.
We all know it’s game over for him now.
Vanessa from Club Travel is in court and tells the judge she does not think the pool bar, cafe or snack bar are main features of the hotel. She also disputes Brian’s account of the airport transfer.
Judge Quirke rules that Brian must be paid the transfer fee but “under the law of contract I can make no order on the refund for a portion of the holiday” on the basis that the possibility of closures were in the Ts & Cs.
Yong is taking an action against Catherine over a leaky washing machine.
Yong, from China, has brought a friend, from Dublin, to help him navigate proceedings, although it emerges that the friend speaks no Chinese so can’t be classified as an interpreter.
At the end of December, water was discovered in an apartment Yong owns. He called a plumber who said the cause of the leak was neighbour Catherine’s washing machine.
He wants new carpets and the plumber paid, a total of just over €1,100.
Then there’s the bombshell. Catherine holds up an email from his tenants to the apartment management company from a week before the leak was found identifying a problem. It was ignored. She says the first time she became aware of an issue was when the plumber called round.
Judge Quirke takes the court on a whistle-stop tour of the laws of negligence going back to the 1930s when a Scottish woman on a day trip fell ill after ingesting a snail found in a bottle of ginger beer.
She explains that under the principles of negligence Catherine cannot be held accountable as didn’t know there was a problem. It’s an unfortunate set of circumstances, Judge Quirke says. She determines that Catherine must pay for the plumber but Yong must pay for the carpets.
He is told he can appeal to the Circuit Court and goes off to think about what he might do next.
And, with that, the court’s proceedings are adjourned.