Seven steps - How to solve an everyday legal problem

There are laws to protect us from being treated unfairly, but it still happens. When it does we have to stand up for ourselves – but it isn't always easy. It's often hard to know who is in the right, where to start, or what to do. That is, until you know how.
Woman in wheelchair and man sat on bench at bus stop
Introduction
 This page is for you if you have an everyday legal problem; like a problem with your boss, benefits or landlord; or an argument about a bill or something you’ve bought. It will guide you through the seven steps you can take to solve your problem; and will lift the lid on the tricks of the trade which advisers  use to solve problems as quickly and effectively as possible.

Below you can read what happened to Sean when he had a problem with his gas bill, or you can get straight down to business and start solving your problem by going to step 1.

Sean's problem

"I got a massive gas bill just before Christmas. It's never that high, so I checked the meter reading myself. It was completely different to what it said on the bill. I called customer services and tried to explain, but the woman I spoke to didn't believe me. To be honest I lost my rag a bit. I ended up shouting at her that it was their mistake, and they should sort it out.

A few weeks later, I came home to find a red bill from them for the same amount. When I phoned up to complain, they said I should have contacted them if I had a problem with my bill! It was so infuriating. I tried to explain that I had, but the woman said there was no record of it. I had to go through the whole thing again. She said she'd put a note on the system so someone would come round and ‘verify’ what I said about the meter.

Over the next few weeks, I got more letters talking about ‘pre-payment meters’ and even telling me they'd get a warrant to come and cut me off. I assumed that somebody was on their way round which would sort it all out. I wasn't going to waste any more of my time phoning them up!

I didn't hear anything more for a few weeks, and to be honest, I forgot about it. That is, until I got home one day to find my gas had been cut off!"

What went wrong for Sean?

We've all been in situations we could have handled better. This wasn’t Sean’s fault but in an ideal world Sean could have:
  • Tried not to lose his temper
  • Made a note of who he spoke to and when, and what they’d agreed
  • Followed up the other letters, even though he’d already explained the situation
  • When he wasn't getting anywhere, he should have got some advice.

If he had, it would probably have been a very different story. (See Sean sorts it to find out how Sean sorted it the ‘seven steps’ way.)

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January 2014

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Step 1 - What's your problem?

You need to be clear exactly what your problem is. This might be obvious, but sometimes it takes a bit of unpicking.

Hot tip!
Sometimes you have a couple of problems tangled up together. Don’t get flustered. Try and work out the facts for each one and what you need to do in what order.

To help, try and answer these questions:

  • What is your problem about?
  • When did it happen?
  • Where did it happen?
  • Who is the problem with?
  • How did it come about?

Once you are clear about the facts it will help you to carry out the next steps.

“My ex threatened to take me to court after weeks of rows about him seeing the kids. I used to take them to his flat at weekends and he would bring them back. But I’m on such a tight budget that when one of my benefits went down I just couldn’t afford the fares. He said I was stopping him from seeing his kids. When I got the letter about court I was terrified, and furious.

But after chatting with a friend I realised that despite all the slanging matches, my ex and I both wanted him to see the kids. So that wasn’t the actual problem – the key to it all was getting them there. So I texted him and suggested he asked his dad, the kids’ granddad, to come and pick them up in the car. He agreed and it’s worked out really well for everybody.”
Linda, Falmouth

 

Step 2 - Know your rights (and responsibilities)

Hot tip!
Not all the information on the internet is up to date, trustworthy or easy to understand. So, start your search at Advicenow where we have brought together all the best information on the law in one place.

Make sure you know:

  • what your legal rights are;
  • if there is anything that you should have done (your legal responsibilities);
  • what ways you might be able to solve the problem. For example, by having an informal chat, making a formal complaint, through mediation or by going to court.

Once you’ve got all the information you’ll be in the best position to make decisions about what to do (see Step 3).

Friends and family are often keen to give you advice, but there are a lot of myths out there about the law, and the law often changes. So make sure you look up what you need to know to make sure it is right.

The internet has masses of free information on your rights. You can also visit your local library, Citizen’s Advice Bureau or other advice centres to find out where you stand (see Useful Contacts for more information).

"Last year I was living in a bedsit. It wasn't brilliant but at least it was my own place, and it was near college.

One day, out of the blue, my landlord knocked on the door and told me I had to move out at the weekend because he needed the bedsit for a family friend.

It was really bad timing, I didn't have anywhere I could go, and I had exams coming up. I told my friends what had happened and everyone thought it was unfair, but what can you do? So I moved out and slept on a mate's floor.

When I told my tutor what had happened, she said my landlord wasn't allowed to just evict me like that. So, I looked it up and she was right! Wish I'd known at the time - I would have stood my ground."
Suzgo, Croydon

 

Step 3 - Understand your options (and know what you want)

Hot tip!
If you don’t have a clear idea of what your choices are, or what a realistic outcome would be look up your rights or speak to an adviser. Don't just believe what you are told by someone who might not be on your side.

Be clear what you are asking for. Do you want an apology, a refund, compensation, or something else?

What your options are will depend on how strong your position is. For example, does the law protect you or will you have to rely on goodwill to get what you want?

It will also depend on how confident and motivated you feel. Sometimes it doesn’t feel worth the hassle and that can be a fair enough conclusion to come to once you have understood your options.

Even if the law doesn’t protect you, it might still be worth having a go. If you negotiate confidently you may still get what you want.

"I bought a necklace for my girlfriend. It was quite cheap, but I didn't want her to know that. The second time she wore it, it fell apart. I was so embarrassed! When I took it back to the shop, they offered me an exchange. But I wanted to get her something completely different. Then they offered me a credit note, and acted like it was some big favour and I was really putting them out. But I didn't really want that either. I wasn't sure what to do so I said I'd think about it.

When I got home, my mum looked it up on the web. We found out that the shop was wrong and that, if I took it back straight away, I should be able to get a refund. When I went back, I asked for a refund and told them I knew I was entitled to one. They paid up.”
Tom, Morecambe

 

Step 4 - Know who to speak to

Work out who to speak to in order to solve the problem.

If it’s an organisation rather than an individual, ask who the best person to talk to is and try to talk or write directly to them each time.

Sometimes there will be a set process to follow. Find out if there is, and what to do. The more you understand about the process, the stronger your position.

Hot tip!
If you are not getting anywhere with the people you are talking to it might be time to approach somebody different, for example, the customer services department, or go up a level, for example by contacting an ombudsman (an independent person at the top of the complaints ladder, whose job it is to investigate complaints fairly.)

"This bloke I work with used to say sleazy things to me, and to some of the others. It didn't seem to bother some people, but it made me feel very uncomfortable. I tried to just avoid him but we were always being put on the same shifts. I didn't know what to do.

Then I had a quiet word with someone in human resources, she explained who I could talk to about it informally, and what the procedure was if I wanted to take formal action. It gave me the confidence I needed to do something about it, off the record, which meant he didn't get into trouble."
Pauline, Sunderland"

 

Step 5 - Communicate effectively

To resolve most everyday legal problems you will probably have to talk to the person or organisation involved, either in person, on the telephone or in writing. Below we give you the lowdown on how to do this effectively.

Top tactics

  • Stay calm and be polite.
  • Be clear about what you want and stick to the point.
  • Know your rights (see step 2) and if the law is on your side, or you have had advice, tell them so.

If you are talking to someone in person or on the telephone

  • Make notes of everything you want to cover during the conversation and tick them off as you go along.
  • Get the name of the person and repeat it several times through the conversation to keep personal contact.
  • Don’t be embarrassed if you don’t understand something that the other person says to you. Ask them to explain it in a different way or to give you an example.
  • At the end of the conversation repeat back anything you have agreed, particularly anything that they have agreed to do.
  • Repeat their name at the end of the conversation and where they are: it helps to make that person feel committed to what they have agreed.
  • Sometimes a bit of praise can go a long way in getting that person on side!
  • Make a note of who you spoke to, where they are and what you agreed.
  • For extra peace of mind send them a letter confirming what you agreed. The more you have in writing the more evidence (see step 6) you’ll have if you need to make a complaint.

Hot tip!
With calls where you get a recorded message saying ‘your call will be recorded’ make a note of exactly when you call. That way if they later go back on what they agreed you can ask for the recording. They probably won’t have it but it can work wonders for wrong-footing them!

If you are writing to someone

  • Double check you’ve covered everything you want to. It is sometimes useful to have a friend check that you’ve made all your points clearly. What's in our minds isn't always what we've put down on paper.
  • If you are posting a letter and can afford it send it ‘signed for’ so that you can track it. This means they will be more likely to respond and not fob you off.

Hot tip!
If you are writing to complain about something write ‘Complaint’ in bold across the top of your letter. That way they may have to deal with your letter in line with their complaints procedure and reply within a certain number of days. If you still don't entirely trust that they will do what they have promised, it's a really a good idea to send them a letter confirming what you agreed. The more you have in writing, the more evidence you'll have if you need to make a complaint.

"I had a tendency to get upset and lose my temper a bit when I tried to sort things out. I remember shouting at this woman at customer services when my computer broke. I hadn’t really worked out what I wanted to say, and ended up yelling about some pretty irrelevant stuff. It wasn't my finest moment, it was the company's fault not hers. Apart from being embarrassing, and stressful, it also made things worse! It made it hard to get my point across, and made her less keen to help (understandably).

Now, I try to stay calm, write down what I want to say beforehand, and tell them clearly what the problem is I need their help with. It really works."
Luca, Birmingham

 

Step 6 - Get organised!

To solve your problem you need to keep records of what went wrong and how you tried to solve it, and gather evidence to prove you are in the right. For example:

  • Check if there are time limits to do with your problem, for example, a certain amount of time in which you have to take something back to a shop, apply to backdate your benefits or put in a claim to a tribunal.
  • Keep copies of all the letters or emails you send and receive.
  • Make a note of everything you do to solve the problem. Write down who you spoke to, what they said, what you or they were going to do next, and when by.
  • If it is your word against somebody else’s write down your account of what happened, date it and keep it safe. Think about recording conversations on your phone.
  • Take copies of any receipts, invoices, bank statements etc.

Recording things properly and getting all your evidence together can be crucial to solving your problem. Not only will it be very helpful for anyone trying to help you, like an adviser, but it could also make all the difference if you have to make a formal complaint or go to court further down the line.

Hot tip!
If you hand over documents or evidence make sure you get a receipt and keep it safe.

"My mum was sick and in and out of hospital for a while and it played havoc with her care package. Because she wasn't well, I had to try and sort them out for her.

But I learnt something really useful. Now when I speak to someone at social services, at the end of the conversation I always repeat anything they have agreed to do and ask how long they think it will take. If they say a week, I write it down and phone back a week later. I ask to speak to the same person and ask what the progress is. It stops me from being passed from person to person and nobody really dealing with my problem. If they don't want me to call back again, they'll solve it for me."
Kirsty, Ferryside

 

Step 7 - Know when to get help

If you’re not getting anywhere or you’re confused, you need to get help.

You can get help from your local advice or law centre, a solicitor, many charities, and organisations like Citizens Advice, Consumer Service, or ACAS.

Depending on your problem, they may step in and do some of the work for you, or they may just clarify what you should be doing and advise you on tactics. Help from a professional, even if it just confirms you've been doing the right thing, should help to stop things getting out of control and becoming too stressful.

Hot tip!
If you have an important deadline approaching fast, perhaps a court date, get help or advice as soon as you can.

I got into debt when I lost my job. My credit card company started sending me letters saying that if I didn't pay it all off immediately, they'd send the bailiffs round. But I didn't have the money. When I phoned the ‘helpline’ they said they'd take me to court, add £300 court fees to my debt, and a bailiff would come into my flat and take all my things. I offered to pay what I could each week, but he wouldn't have any of it. I was so desperate I thought about taking out another loan.

But then I went to see an adviser. She said that they couldn't take my things, and that he had broken the law by saying they could. She said that if they took me to court, the court would only make me pay off what I could afford each week - exactly the same as I had already offered! We wrote out my income and all my expenses and worked out I could only afford to pay £2.50 a week.

When I phoned him back, it was so much easier because I knew the law was on my side. They backed down eventually and accepted £2.50 a week. They had no choice."
David, Worthing

 

Useful contacts

Step 7 is all about knowing when to get help. If you've got a problem, there are a number of organisations that can offer information and support to help you resolve it. Here we list some of them and explain what they do.

Useful contacts

Advicenow
We bring together the best law and rights information from over 250 internet providers and produce our own, easy to follow guides.
Advicenow 

AdviceUK
AdviceUK is a network of independent advice centres. Some give general information and advice whilst others specialise in one or more area of law. You can use their search to find out if there is an AdviceUK centre near you. 

Citizens Advice
Citizens Advice Bureaux (CAB) help people resolve their legal, money and other problems by providing free information and advice. Find your local CAB by visiting their website. 

Civil Legal Advice
Civil Legal Advice is a national adviceline for England and Wales. It can check if you are entitled to legal aid and then can provide advice for problems with debt (where you might lose your home), special educational needs, housing, family (involving domestic violence, child abuse or where a child may be taken into care), discrimination and welfare benefits appeals. Click here to visit their website. 

Law Centres Network
Law Centres are staffed by both solicitors and other workers who specialise in legal problems. They offer a free and independent service. You can find out if there is a Law Centre near you by visiting their website.

The Law Society
The Law Society is the organisation that governs lawyers. You can search for a solicitor by area of law on the Law Society website. 

 

Sean sorts it

"I got a massive gas bill just before Christmas. It's never that high, so I checked the meter reading myself. It was completely different to what it said on the bill! I called customer services and tried to explain, but the woman I spoke to didn't believe me. I asked her to send somebody round to check it, and she agreed. I made a note of our conversation, the date and her name.

I thought that would be the end of it but a few weeks later I got a red bill for the full amount. I phoned customer services and explained that I had spoken to Cheryl on 19th December, and what we had agreed. The woman I spoke to this time, Sarah, apologised but said there was no note on the system. She said she would make sure somebody was sent out later that day. Again, I recorded the date, her name, and what she’d promised.

When I received another bill, this time threatening to cut me off, I phoned Citizens Advice Consumer Service. I explained the problem and that I'd tried to sort it out and they referred me to the Extra Help Unit. The Extra Help Unit said they were able to help me. I got a call a few days later telling me it had all been sorted finally, and then I got a bill for the right amount."

 

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