Before you sue - things you need to know about court procedure

This guide will help you to understand what you need to know about court procedure before you sue someone. It is part of a series of guides about sorting out a dispute and going to a civil court. If you sue someone you start a court procedure to bring a legal claim against them. This can also be known as taking legal action, bringing a claim, bringing a civil claim, going to court, starting legal proceedings or litigation. The purpose of suing is to get the court to make a decision in your favour (called ‘a judgment’) and award a remedy, usually money compensation.
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Getting started

Before you start your civil claim, the court expects you to have made every effort to settle your dispute with the other side. Suing is treated as a last resort. See How to sort out your legal problem before or instead of going to court.

You should also read Should I sue? if you haven't yet. All of the series can be found on our Going to a civil court page.

This guide is for you if you:

  • are thinking about suing (starting a civil claim) in either England or Wales, and

  • your case involves a claim for £25,000 or less, and

  • you are representing yourself (you are a litigant in person) and not eligible to have your case paid for by legal aid, a trade union, or insurance.

This guide is also for people supporting litigants in person, for example Support Through Court volunteers, CAB volunteers, housing support workers, advice workers and court staff, as well as relatives and friends.

Top tip – Have a look at Suing in the civil court – an overview of the process to get an overview of what a typical case might look like.

This guide does not cover:

  • criminal cases,

  • family cases (such as an application for a domestic violence injunction or a divorce),

  • housing disrepair cases involving housing possession including mortgage possession,

  • injunctions (including court claims about anti-social behaviour),

  • medical accident cases,

  • cases involving defamation (libel or slander) or

  • tribunal cases (such as a discrimination claim or other claim in the employment tribunal).

Legal language

We try to explain any legal language as we go along, but there is also a What does it mean? section at the end.

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Things to understand

Courts expect you to:

  • comply with court rules,
  • provide enough information to allow the other party and the court to understand what the dispute is about and what you are asking for,
  • act within the relevant time limits or if nothing specific is mentioned then within a reasonable period,
  • consider using alternative dispute resolution, for example, mediation, to try and resolve the claim without the need to go to court,
  • minimise expense, especially when there is a need to get expert evidence,
  • give the other party the documents they have asked for unless there is a good reason not to,
  • tell the other party if you are a litigant in person, or if you have a conditional fee agreement or you have made arrangements for your legal costs to be paid by someone else, for example, an insurance company or trade union
  • copy the defendant into any correspondence you send to the court,  
  • attend court when ordered to do so. (You may be able to request a telephone hearing),
  • make all your allegations against the defendant at the same time or, if you do not do this, explain why you think you should not have to.
Civil procedure rules

The civil procedure rules are the court rules that you have to follow when you sue someone. They explain what you need to do, andwhen. If you hear lawyers talk about the ‘CPR’ they are referring to these rules. You need to follow the ones that apply to your case. If you don’t follow the court’s rules, it could cost you money, cause you to lose the right to rely on something you would like to rely on, or cause you to lose your case.

A quick look the the Civil Procedure Rules will probably just confirm your worst fears; there are loads of them. And an individual rule often comes with one or more additional bits of guidance, called ‘practice directions’. The good news is that only some of the rules and practice directions are likely to apply to your case, unless it is very complicated. So, it’s not like a book, you don’t have to start at the beginning and read all the way through to the end. You need to pick out the rules that are relevant to your case. We will try and help you do this by listing those rules that are most relevant to each stage in the court procedure we describe.

Pre-action protocols and pre-action conduct

A pre-action protocol describes the procedure the court expects you to follow before you issue your claim. It gives details about how to behave and what to do. There are specific pre-action protocols for many types of case. Where your type of claim is not covered by a pre-action protocol you need to follow the rules for pre-action conduct which are set out in a practice direction (see below).

Essentially, this is a ‘cards on the table’ approach. The aim is to encourage early and full information exchange so each side can:

  • understand each other’s position,
  • make decisions about how to proceed,
  • try to settle without starting court proceedings,
  • consider some form of Alternative Dispute Resolution
  • support the efficient management of the claim, and
  • reduce the cost of resolving the claim.

Currently there are pre-action protocols for claims about:

  • Debt (where the claimant is a business claiming from an individual)

  • Package travel

  • Personal injury (where the total claim is worth over £25,000)

  • Low value personal injury (employer’s liability and public liability) - this is where the total claim is worth under £25,000 but the personal injury element is worth over £1,000. 

  • Low value personal injury in road traffic accidents - this is where the total value is under £25,000 but the personal injury element is worth over £1,000.

  • Disease and illness

  • Clinical negligence

  • Construction and Engineering

  • Defamation

  • Professional negligence

  • Judicial review

  • Housing disrepair (whatever the value)

  • Possession claims based on rent arrears

  • Possession claims based on mortgage or home purchase plan arrears in respect of residential property

  • Claims for damages in relation to the physical state of commercial property at termination of a tenancy

You can find them at Civil Procedure Rules - Pre-Action Protocols.

The aim of a pre-action protocol is to improve communication between you and the defendant so you both get enough information to decide how likely it is that the case will succeed, and its value. As a result, the two of you may become more willing to try and reach an agreement about the dispute (also known as settling a dispute or reaching a settlement) without you starting a civil claim. If you decide to issue proceedings after following the relevant pre-action protocol, you should be in a better-informed position.

Once you have decided to start a claim, and got the bulk of your evidence together, you need to check if there is a pre-action protocol for your sort of case.

The court will expect you to comply with the relevant pre-action protocol if you start proceedings after the date that it came into force. If not, you will need to follow the general rules for pre-action conduct. The extent to which you have complied with these rules will influence the court when it decides how to manage your claim and who should pay the costs.

What do I do first where there is a pre-action protocol?

Where a pre-action protocol applies to your case, have a look at it. It will explain the steps you have to take to provide and exchange information about the claim you are planning to make and give you a pretty clear idea of what is involved.

The first step you have to take is to communicate with the other side providing specific information. You may hear this called a ‘letter of claim’ or a ‘letter before action’ or in some types of case a ‘claim notification form’.

Some pre-action protocols provide a form of template letter with blanks which you have to complete with information relevant to your case. See also Letter of Claim below.

Low value personal injury claims

If you have a personal injury claim or a road traffic claim involving personal injury where the injury element is worth over £1,000 and the overall claim is worth under £25,000, then you must start the pre-action protocol in a particular way using an online process called the Claims Portal. You may hear this type of claim referred to as a ‘low value’ personal injury claim.

The Claims Portal is available for use by litigants in person as well as lawyers. Currently there is no charge for using the service.

You must use the Claims Portal to notify the other side of your claim if either of the following pre-action protocols applies to your case:

The Claims Portal is designed to take you through a process where the defendant or their insurer is bound by court rules to respond promptly to you when you tell them about your claim. They have to provide you with relevant information, investigate your case within three months, and actively consider whether rehabilitation (for example, medical help such as physiotherapy) is appropriate.

You can find information about the process at Introduction to the process.

You also need to understand the costs consequences of using the Claims Portal – for more information about this see Legal costs and who pays them.

Pre-action conduct

If there isn’t a pre-action protocol that applies to your case, the court will expect you to follow the general rules (called the ‘Practice Direction - Pre-Action Conduct’). There is no specific pre-action protocol for small claims so the rules for pre-action conduct apply to those too.

These rules describe how the court will normally expect you and the other party to behave before proceedings start.

Failing to follow a pre-action protocol or the rules about pre-action conduct

Later, if you do start court proceedings, a court may ask you to explain what you did to comply with the relevant protocol and/or the rules about pre-action conduct before you started court proceedings. If you haven’t complied with them you may have to explain why not and the court can impose a sanction. For example, they might order you to pay legal costs for behaving unreasonably, even where you would not normally have been ordered to pay the defendant’s legal costs.

A court can:

  • put the case on hold (called a stay or a stay of proceedings) until you do the things you should have done already,
  • order you to pay part or all of the other party’s costs, or more of the other side’s costs than you would otherwise have had to pay,
  • deprive you of interest or award you interest at a lower rate than you would otherwise have got on any money the defendant ends up having to pay you, or
  • order you to pay interest at a higher rate than would otherwise have been awarded, if you are the defendant and you end up having to pay the claimant money.
Letter of claim (also called letter before action)

If there is a pre-action protocol that applies to your case, it may contain a template letter which you can complete with information relevant to your case. If there is no template, the pre-action protocol will include details as to what your letter of claim should contain.

If there isn’t a pre-action protocol that applies to your case, the general pre-action conduct rules give some guidance on the letter of claim. They say that the parties should exchange enough information in correspondence to allow the parties to:

(a) understand each other’s position;

(b) make decisions about how to proceed;

(c) try to settle the issues without proceedings;

(d) consider a form of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) to assist with settlement;

(e) support the efficient management of those proceedings; and

(f) reduce the costs of resolving the dispute.

The parties should bear in mind that compliance with the general pre-action rules should be proportionate. The claimant’s letter to the defendant should contain concise details of the claim. It should include the basis on which the claim is made, a summary of the facts, what the claimant wants from the defendant, and if money, how the amount is calculated.

You may find it helpful to look at the template letter for the most similar pre-action protocol to your sort of case, and adapt that.

After you have written your letter of claim, and before starting court proceedings

Once you have written and sent your letter of claim or notification of claim, you need to allow the other side time to investigate your claim. You will need to respond promptly to any requests they make for information which will help with their investigation. The time you have to allow for investigation varies a lot depending on your type of case and the protocol. For example, in a personal injury claim, you are expected to allow the other side 21 days to acknowledge your letter, and a further three months for them to investigate before you issue your claim, unless by doing this your deadline would expire or for some other urgent reason. If you are a business suing an individual over an unpaid invoice (debt) you have to allow the debtor 30 days to respond before issuing proceedings. If there is no pre-action protocol which applies to your claim the general rules for pre-action conduct suggest that the time a defendant should have to investigate and respond may vary from 14 days in a straight forward case to no more than 3 months in a very complex one.

You will need to check any relevant protocol for the appropriate timetable, and put a note in your diary so you remember it.

You should use this time to make sure you have gathered and organised as much evidence as possible, so that you are ready to issue your proceedings if pre-action negotiations fail or the defendant refuses to co-operate, and also to comply with the court’s timetable if you do issue proceedings.

If your claim is one where you need an expert’s report, you should also try to agree with the other side who that expert is – you will need to read any relevant protocol to find out how to go about this.

Court forms

Courts use lots of forms, and you will be expected to fill in a different form at different stages of a civil case. Otherwise you should be able to find the form you need on the Gov.uk website.Each one has a number such as N1 or N244. 

We try and help by including a link to those forms that are most relevant to each stage in the court process. If you follow the link you will often find Welsh language and large print versions of the same form there as well.

Most court forms can seem a bit intimidating when you first look at them. Some of them will have guidance notes either built into the form itself, or as an accompanying document.

A large part of most form filling involves giving factual information. Read through each form a couple of times to find out what information it asks for. Then get together the information you need before you start filling it in. Once you have done this, the job may turn out to be a bit easier than you first thought. But sometimes you have to write something more, for example, a statement of the essential facts on which your claim is based. You don’t have to do this in long words and legal language. The best thing is to keep it short and simple. Ask yourself what you want to achieve and focus on that and what is in dispute. Stick to what is relevant and try not to repeat yourself. Never say anything you don’t know to be true and if you are unsure about something, say so.

The most common court forms which you will come across are:

  • N1 Claim form – The form you need to start (or issue) a claim in the court. N1 has a guidance note which is form N1A
  • N9 Response pack – this is the set of forms a defendant needs to complete after receiving details of a claim
  • N244 Application notice - a form you need to complete to ask the court to order something. N244 has a guidance note to help you complete it.
  • N180 and N181 Directions Questionnaire – Both parties complete a directions questionnaire to give information about the case and what evidence they will rely on. The court will then set a timetable for steps to be taken, such as the exchange of documents, witness statements and expert evidence. Directions Questionnaires have guidance built into the form.
  • N265 List of documents – Both parties complete a list of documents to show what documents they know about that are related to the claim. There is guidance built in.

After completing your form you should send it to the court (this is called filing it) and send a copy to defendant.

Court fees

You have to pay court fees at various stages during a court case, in particular:

  • when you start your claim (issue fee).

  • if you want to make an interim application, that is an application before the final hearing, for example because you need more time to do something.

  • before the trial date (hearing fee).

  • to ‘enforce’ a judgment – that is, to force someone to obey a court judgement, for example, to pay you money or to return something belonging to you. 

You can find information about civil court fees including enforcement fees, when to pay them and how much they are by reading the Court service leaflet Civil and Family court fees (EX50).

Find out if you can get Getting help to pay a court fee in a civil or family case.

Help with court fees

You may not have to pay a fee at all or only a reduced fee if you are on a low income or certain benefits, and you have no or little savings. For example, you will not pay anything if you can prove that you get Income Support, Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance, State Pension Credit guarantee credit, Universal Credit with gross annual earnings of less than £6,000 or income-related Employment and Support Allowance, as long as your savings or other capital don’t exceed certain limits. The savings limit will depend on whether you (or a partner) are under or over 61, and on whether the fee is over or under £1,000. You should make any application for help paying a court fee promptly. If it is refused in full or in part, you will need to pay the fee within a very short time, possibly as little as 7 days or your case may be struck out. You may also hear help with court fees called ‘fee remission’.

You can ask for help paying court fees by completing form EX160. You can find notes to help you complete the form in the leaflet called How to apply for help with court fees (EX160A)

You have to complete a separate application for each court fee you want help paying. This may mean you have to complete this form more than once during your case.

What happens if I don’t pay the court fee?

If you do not pay the fee your case will be delayed or struck out. If your case is struck out because you failed to pay a fee, that is the end of your case. You would have to start all over again, if you are still in time and want to pursue your claim.

Even if you don’t have to pay your court fees, you will still have some expenses like photocopying and postage.

Finding and contacting the court

If you have a claim for a fixed sum of money, you have to issue proceeding through the  County Court Money Claims Centre, either by post or online. You will only need to find a local county court if your claim is not for a fixed sum of money.

If your claim is not for a fixed or certain sum of money you can find your appropriate local court , its contact details and opening times at gov.uk court finder.

Emailing the court

You can send some documents or communications by email. There is guidance about what you can and cannot send by email, the required form and content of emails, where to send your email and what the court will do with your email on the Court service website.

It is important you follow the guidance. Not all documents are accepted by email. If you email a document which is not on the ‘approved’ list, your document will be treated as not sent. This could risk you losing your case, or a court ‘striking it out’ (ending your case). There is no extra leeway given to litigants in person if you don't comply with the correct court procedure.

If you don’t follow the correct format with email subject heading, case reference number and so on, the risk is that the court will not deal with it.

How long will my claim take?

Cases are allocated to ‘tracks’ depending on their value and complexity (see guide x)

Small track claims will take about six months from start to finish if the case goes to a final hearing (trial).

Fast track claims will take about a year or slightly longer from start to finish if the case goes to a final hearing (trial).

Multi-track cases, those which are particularly complicated, or a very high value, are likely to take over a year. 

How much will my claim cost?

The actual cost for you to bring a claim will include:

  • court fees, if you have to pay them,

  • expert’s fees, if you use an expert,

  • postage and photocopying expenses,

  • travel to court for you and your witnesses,

  • loss of earnings for you and your witnesses because of time spent attending court, and

  • the value of your time in preparing your case.

The other side will also have some or all of these costs. They may also have the legal cost of employing solicitors and barristers to represent them. This is highly likely if they are an organisation or are covered by insurance, rather than an uninsured individual.

The general rule is that the loser will contribute towards the winner’s costs of the claim. However, the judge can make a different order if appropriate, and the opportunity to recover costs from the losing party is more limited in small claims and fast track claims. 

Legal costs

The rules about legal costs can be complicated. This is a summary of the things you should bear in mind at the start of a claim, but you can find more details in our guide Legal Costs and who pays them.

Small claims

If you win a small claim, the court will order the other side to pay you the cost of your court fees, any loss of earnings for you and your witnesses in attending court, and travel expenses to get to court for the hearing. You will not get any award to compensate you for the time you have spent preparing your case. If you have been given permission to use an expert (this is rare in small claims) you will not get back more than £200 towards the cost.

If you lose a small claims case, the court will order you to pay the other side's court fees, their loss of earnings for attending court, and their travel costs. If they have had permission to use an expert’s report (this is rare in small claims) you will not be expected to pay more than £200 towards its cost.

No-one will be expected to pay the other side's full legal costs unless they have behaved unreasonably (for example, unreasonably caused a last-minute adjournment). This means that if the other side has employed solicitors to defend the case, and you have behaved reasonably, you will not be expected to pay for those costs if you lose.

Fast track claims

A fast track claim is one worth between £10,000 and £25,000, or a personal injury claim worth under £25,000, where the injury element is worth over £1,000, or a housing disrepair claim worth under £25,000 where the cost of repairs is worth over £1,000.

If you win a 'fast track' claim the court will normally order the other side to pay your legal costs including the cost of preparing for the case, and expert's fees, as well as the costs that it can order in a small claim. If you are a litigant in person, you can claim preparation costs (that is, for the time you have spent researching, getting your evidence together, preparing documents, attending court and so on) at a rate of £19 per hour. If you can prove higher actual financial loss you will be entitled to that higher hourly rate for time reasonably spent preparing. You will need to show evidence of your loss of earnings to get a higher rate. It means you need to keep a careful note as you go along showing how much time you have spent on each stage, and what you spent the time doing.

If you lose a fast track claim (one which isn’t a personal injury case), you will almost certainly be ordered to pay a sum to the other side for their legal costs. This can amount to many thousands of pounds, especially if they are legally represented by solicitors and barristers. These legal costs could easily exceed the amount that your dispute is about.

Costs in personal injury and road traffic claims

There are different rules on costs in personal injury and road traffic claims – see our separate guide on Legal Costs and who pays them.

Legal aid for civil claims

Legal aid is a government scheme – a means tested benefit to help you pay for legal advice and help, representation and family mediation. Sometimes it can also pay for things like an expert’s advice or court fees.

The rules about who can get legal aid and for what changed in 2013. But some people can still get legal aid. Before you decide to take action alone, whether as a claimant or a defendant, find out if you can get legal aid to pay for a lawyer to help you.

Whether or not you can get legal aid depends on what legal problem you have, how much money you earn, what property you own, and your chances of success.

You can find more information about legal aid, what it is, when it is available and who can get it by taking a look at Getting help to pay for legal advice about a civil (non-criminal) legal problem.

Check whether you are eligible for legal aid.

Other funding for civil claims

Conditional fee agreement

You may have heard these called ‘no win, no fee’ agreements. They are a contract between you and your lawyer which means your lawyer will only get paid for their work if you win your case. You still have to pay the other side’s costs if you lose. If you don’t have the money but aren’t eligible for legal aid or legal aid isn’t available in your case and you don’t have any legal expenses insurance (see below), then a conditional fee agreement may be the only way you can fund your claim.

Damages-based agreement

These agreements are another way of funding litigation and are similar to a conditional fee agreement. But with these agreements if your case is successful, the lawyer’s fee is calculated as a percentage of what you win. If you lose, no fee is payable to the lawyer.

Legal expenses insurance

This is also known as ‘Before the event’ insurance and is often added to car, household contents and buildings insurance policies. It can also come as a benefit attached to some credit cards. Check your policies to see if you have it. A lawyer or other adviser should be able to check the terms and conditions of any legal expenses insurance you have and tell you what it will and won’t cover. You may find you have access to free legal advice on a range of subjects including making a civil claim. It’s also possible your insurer may cover the cost of your claim. Contact them and ask.

Trade Union or professional organisation

If you are a member of a Trades Union or other professional organisation you may have access to free or discounted legal services as part of your membership. Check your Union or professional organisation's website for details.

What does it mean? (Before you sue)

Civil procedure rules – the court rules that you have to follow when you sue someone.

Claim notification form – the form you use in certain types of claim to notify a defendant and give them details about your claim in specific types of case.

Claims portal - an online process designed specifically for cases covered by the two pre-action protocols about low value personal injury claims. 

Employer’s liability – the legal responsibility employers have for their employees if they get injured or become ill as a result of working for the employer’s business. 

Letter of claim – a letter, sent to the proposed defendant before court proceedings start, that sets out the basis on which the claim is made, a summary of the facts, what the claimant wants from the defendant, and if that is money, how the amount is calculated.

Letter before action – is another name for a Letter of claim and means the same.

Low value personal injury – these are claims where the compensation claimed is between £1,000 and £25,000. 

Pre-action protocol - the name of the procedure the court expects you to follow before you issue your claim in the court. There are specific pre-action protocols for many types of case. The aims are to ensure the parties know what each other’s arguments are, and to encourage parties to resolve the dispute before the claimant issues proceedings.

Pre-action conduct – the name of the procedure the court expects you to follow before you issue your claim if there isn’t a pre-action protocol that applies to your case. The aims are to ensure the parties know what each other’s arguments are, and to encourage parties to resolve the dispute before the claimant issues proceedings.

Public liability – the legal responsibility businesses have for the general public when they carry out their business activities.

Sanction – action the court can take if a party fails to follow a court rule or direction.

Stay– this temporarily suspends or stops any further progress in a case, usually for a set time specified by the court or until one or both parties does something specific required by the court.

Suing - If you sue someone you start a court process to bring a legal claim against them. This can also be known as taking legal action, bringing a claim, bringing a civil claim, going to court, issuing proceedings, starting legal proceedings or litigation. The purpose of suing is to get the court to make a decision in your favour (called ‘a judgment’) and award a remedy, usually money compensation.

About this guide

Disclaimer

The information in this guide applies to England and Wales only. The law may be different if you live in Scotland or Northern Ireland. The law is complicated. We have simplified things in this guide. Please don’t rely on this guide as a complete statement of the law. We recommend you try and get advice from the sources we have suggested.

The cases we refer to are not always real but show a typical situation. We have included them to help you think about how to deal with your own situation.

Acknowledgements

This guide was produced by Law for Life's Advicenow project, with additional material from Laura Bee. Thanks to everybody who commented on this guide and to Laura Bee who peer reviewed it.

Thanks to the Bar Standards Board for funding the creation of this guide.

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Bringing a civil claim

From knowing nothing about civil claims and how it all works .
I can honestly say I have been well and truly educated and now as least I can make the right decision. I will let you know

Thanks Bill

on the 07 / 04 / 2020

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