MAKING CENTS: Small Claims Court is an avenue to achieve redress without hefty costs

As a consumer, it is important to know what to do and where to go when things go wrong, writes, Grainne McGuinness.

Despite our best efforts at research and shopping around, there will be times when we are let down.

Be it a purchase not working (or not arriving if bought online), poor workmanship or disputes about deposits, how do you react if you believe you have been badly treated?

Many of us have a tendency to rage to family and friends, but not actually follow up beyond an initial complaint to the retailer or business involved. But there are avenues to explore:

Most suggested is to take your dispute to the Small Claims Court. It’s something that is often mentioned as a last resort, but the numbers who use the service are low.

According to the Court Services annual report, in 2014 1,631 applications were made under the small claims procedure (excluding those lodged online), a decrease of 15% on the previous year.

So what’s actually involved in making a claim through this system? The stated aim of the Small Claims Court procedure is to “provide an inexpensive, fast and easy way for consumers to resolve disputes without the need to employ a solicitor”.

Claimants complete an application and submit it to the Small Claims Registrar, along with a fee of €25. The claim being made cannot exceed €2,000.

The Registrar, who is a District Court Clerk , will inform the business about your claim who must then reply within 15 days.

They can either admit the claim, dispute it or counter-claim. If they admit the claim they can either agree to pay immediately or in installments and the registrar will come back to the claimant with their offer.

If the business ignores the notice from the Registrar and does not respond within the 15 days, they are held to have admitted the claim.

Where the claim is undisputed, the District Court will make an order in favour of the claimant for the amount claimed, and direct that it be paid within a specific period of time. The claimant will not need to attend court.

Where the claim is disputed or a counter-claim is made, the Registrar will to try to reach an agreement without the dispute having to be heard in court. They will interview and negotiate with both the claimant and the business in an informal, private meeting. This is where most claims are resolved.

In 2014 Registrars settled 521 claims and there were 150 decrees by default — granted where the person against whom the claim was made did not respond or take any part in the case.

If the dispute cannot be settled at this stage, the Registrar will fix a time and date for a hearing of the claim before a judge of the District Court, if the claimant wishes. Of the 327 cases referred to the District Court in 2014 decrees were granted in 146 cases, 44 cases were dismissed, and the remaining 137 were struck out or withdrawn.

Ideally, consumers should try to resolve issues themselves before involving the courts. The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) provide valuable advice on how to go about making a complaint. They have a guide and a template letter on their website www.consumerhelp.ie and also provide advice at 1890 432 432.

The crucial thing in all complaints is to be able to support your argument. The CCPC also warn consumers not to delay making a complaint as this may be taken as a sign that you accept the goods or service, and it may weaken your case.

“There may also be a time limit on making certain types of complaints. For example, complaints about a package holiday must be made within 28 days of returning from the holiday.”

A major drawback is that the Court can’t compel someone to pay up and you may have to enlist the Sheriff to recoup your money if they just won’t play ball.

The Sheriff can seize a person’s assets and sell them. However there are rules about what the Sheriff can seize meaning a person’s tools of their trade can’t be taken and they must be allowed retain reasonable assets at their home.

USEFUL INFORMATION

If you are unhappy with goods or services and not satisfied with the response from the provider, you need to escalate your complaint to the correct office.

In most cases, a regulator will want proof that you have tried to resolve the issue with the provider before they will take up the case, so always keep a record of your complaint. Here are the correct authorities to contact in some of the most common areas of complaint:

- Financial Services Ombudsman www.financialombudsman.ieor 1890 88 20 90.

- Pension Ombudsman www.pensionsombudsman.ieor 01 676 6002.

- Private Residential Tenancies Board www.prtb.ie.

- Competition and Consumer Protection Commission.

- If you are unsure of where to direct a complaint, contact www.citizensinformation.ie.

For assistance from us on a personal finance matter, email makingcents@examiner.ie.


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