How to take a claim in the civil court

An overview of the process of taking a claim in the civil court

This overview of the process is designed to give you an overall picture of what is involved in a typical county court case. It will not help you decide what to do in your case because your case will be different. But it may make the process seem a bit less daunting and help you keep track of where you are. It is part of series that explains how you can take someone to the small claims court or county court to sort out a disagreement about money owed, broken contracts (often called ‘breach of contract’), compensation, and personal injury - including road traffic accidents and workers compensation.

One of the problems of going to court is that you will come across lots of new technical words and ideas. This is the jargon that lawyers and court staff use. We think there’s no getting around it - you have to learn what most of it means too.

Some words that may seem familiar, for example, party or service, have different and very specific meanings in courts. So be prepared for some surprises.

In the overview below we explain the technical words the first time they appear.

Sometimes we describe the court as ‘doing’ things, for example, sending out a form or making a decision. It sounds a bit odd because a court is really a place. But ‘the court’ is often used as shorthand to refer to the people working in the court.

The story so far.......

Rory, an electrician, has re-wired Ceri’s house. Ceri says the installation hasn’t been done properly and is unsafe and there is lots of re-plastering still to be done. Ceri has followed the pre-action protocol (the official procedure you need to follow before you start taking someone to court) and has tried to resolve the dispute, but without success.

Ceri has decided to take Rory to court. Ceri is the claimant (the person who is starting the court proceedings) and is a litigant in person (someone who represents themselves without the help of a solicitor or barrister). Rory is the defendant (the person who has court proceedings brought against them). Rory does not accept Ceri’s claim.

This is how the court proceedings go in this case, step by step. This is an example of a typical case, but other cases could proceed in a different way. It is important to consider at every step whether it is possible to settle the claim and whether it would be appropriate to discuss settlement with the other party. You can settle a claim at any point up to the trial. See How to settle a claim.  

1.Ceri fills in a paper N1 claim form including the section called the Particulars of Claim.

(It is also possible to use an online process to start a claim). See How to start a civil claim for more details. 

Claim form - the form that starts a case and where the Claimant explains what they are asking for.  

Particulars of Claim - a concise written statement of the facts and law on which your claim is based and what you want from the defendant. This statement must show that you have a cause of action – a legal right to bring a claim against the defendant. (This is called Claim details in the online small claims system).

2. Ceri photocopies the completed claim form and Particulars of Claim. Ceri needs one for the court, one for Rory and one to keep.

3. Ceri sends the original claim form plus two copies to the court together with the correct fee. If eligible, she can ask for help to pay the court fee by completing Form EX160 and including that with her claim instead.

(Everyone is sent a copy automatically on the online system. She can also make an application for help with court fees online if she thinks she is eligible. If you use the online system to make a claim, you must use the online process to apply for help with fees too)

4. The court sends Rory a copy of Ceri’s claim form and a response pack by first class post. The response pack includes the forms Rory needs to reply to Ceri’s claim.

(If you make a small claim online, the Defendant is emailed a copy of the claim form -if the Defendant's email address was supplied - and can respond online.)

Response pack - the pack of forms and information sent to a Defendant after a claim starts. 

5. The court sends Ceri a Notice of Issue. This confirms that Ceri’s case has started and includes the date of service.

(This all happens automatically if you use the small claims online system).

Notice of issue - this tells you that your claim has started, the date it began, the case number, date and method of service and the deadline by when the defendant has to respond.

Service - formal delivery of court documents.

6. Rory has 14 days from the date of service to decide what to do next and to reply.

(If using the small claims online system and Rory’s email address was supplied, Rory has 19 days to respond from the day the claim was submitted).


7. Rory does not agree with Ceri’s claim. Rory fills in the defence form in the response pack and returns it to the court. If he had needed more time he could have completed the acknowledgement of service form and returned that to the court within the initial 14 days. He would then have had a further 14 days to complete and send in the defence form.

(If using the small claims online system Rory responds online. He also has an option of an extra 14 days).

Acknowledgement of service form – the form the Defendant can complete to confirm they have received the claim documents and to give themselves a little more time to respond.

Defence form - the form the Defendant completes to explain why they dispute the claim.

8. The court sends Ceri and Rory a copy of the defence form, a notice of proposed allocation and a directions questionnaire.

(If using the small claims online system Ceri receives a copy of Rory’s response. It has already been decided that the case will be dealt with as a small claim.)

Notice of proposed allocation - this tells you which route (‘track’) the court thinks your case should take through the court system.

Directions questionnaire - a questionnaire that helps the court decide how to deal with your case and which track to allocate (transfer) your case to. To complete this, you will need a clear idea of what evidence you will need to prove your case, what witnesses and experts (if any) you need. Expert evidence will only be permitted at the trial if the court judge has considered a request for expert evidence and authorised it.

9. Ceri and Rory discuss whether they can agree any of the answers to the directions questionnaire. They decide they can agree how long the trial will last.

(If using the small claims online system it has already been decided that the case will be dealt with as a small claim.)

Trial - the final hearing when the judge decides who wins and who loses the case.

10. Ceri and Rory both fill in a directions questionnaire and return it to the court by the date stated on the notice of proposed allocation. They also send a copy to each other.

(If using the small claims online system it has already been decided that the case will be dealt with as a small claim.)


11. A judge looks at the information in the directions questionnaires and decides how the case will progress from now on.

In a complex case the judge may want to see the parties, in which case they will list the case for a case management hearing to discuss the contents of the directions questionnaires before giving directions.

12. The court sends Ceri and Rory a notice of allocation. This allocates (or assigns) the case to the fast track. The notice (a type of court order) also tells Ceri and Rory what to do next. These instructions are called directions.

If the case had been allocated to the small claims track, Ceri and Rory would now be offered free mediation. All small claims except those involving the Child Support Agency, HMRC, personal injury over £5,000, and road traffic accidents involving personal injury are offered free mediation. They would be given a two-hour window in which the mediator speaks to both separately by telephone to see if a way forward can be agreed. If the mediation is not successful it has no impact on the final decision, and does not delay the case. They do not have to take up the offer of mediation.  If they later change their mind, they can contact the small claims mediation service and ask to mediate now.

Notice of allocation - this tells you which track your case has been allocated to, small claims, fast track or multi track.
A ‘fast track’ claim is one worth over £10,000, or a personal injury claim where the injury element is worth over £1,000, but the overall value is under £25,000, or a housing disrepair claim worth under £25,000 where the cost of repairs is worth over £1,000.

Directions – instructions from the court for how a case will be dealt with. These must be complied with.

Court order – an official court document which is used to give instructions or information to the parties. It is important to comply with court orders.

13. Ceri and Rory both fill in a form called a list of documents and send the other a copy. They do this by the date given in the judge’s instructions which will be about 4 weeks after allocation. This step is called disclosure.

(If using the small claims online system, this happens online).

See After you start a civil claim for more details

List of documents - the form you use to list the documents and any other evidence that is relevant to your case. See X for how to complete it.

Allocation - the process of deciding which track the case should follow.

Disclosure - the process of showing the evidence that supports your case to the other party.

14. Ceri asks for copies of some of the documents listed on Rory’s list of documents, and Rory provides them.

Once you have provided your list of documents to the other party they may ask for copies, or to inspect certain documents.

15. Rory asks for copies of some of the documents listed on Ceri’s list of documents, and Ceri provides them.


16. Ceri and Rory exchange witness statements. They do this by the date given in the judge’s directions which will be about 10 weeks after allocation.

See Witness statements and expert reports for guidance on what to put in them and how to lay them out. 

Witness statement - a document in which someone explains what they saw, did or heard. 

17. Ceri and Rory exchange expert reports (if any). They do this by the date given in the judge’s directions which will be about 14 weeks after allocation.

See Witness statements and expert reports for more help.

If expert evidence is appropriate, the judge is likely to want the parties to instruct an expert on a joint basis unless there are good reasons not to. A joint expert would report to both parties at the same time.


18. Ceri and Rory’s experts (if any) speak to each other to work out where they agree with each other and to try and reduce the number of things they disagree about.

See How to settle a claim for more details.


19. The court sends Ceri and Rory a pre-trial checklist. This happens about 20 weeks after allocation. The court also tells them the date by which the checklists must be returned.

Pre-trial checklist - the form you use to tell the court how your case is progressing in the run up to the trial, and whether anything else needs to be done to get the case ready for trial.

20. Ceri and Rory discuss whether they can agree what information should go in the pre-trial checklist.


21. Ceri and Rory both fill in a pre-trial checklist (also called a listing questionnaire) and return it to the court by the date stated on the front of the form.


22. The court sends further directions and tells Ceri to file a trial bundle 7 days before the trial.

See How to prepare a trial bundle and index for more information.

If there are a lot of outstanding issues the judge may want to see the parties, in which case they will list the case for a pre-trial review (hearing) before giving further directions.

Trial bundle - a pack combining both parties’ documents with a list at the front showing what’s in it. 

23. The court sends Ceri and Rory a notice of trial date and tells Ceri what hearing fee she must pay and the date by which she must pay it. (If eligible, she can ask for help to pay the court fee by completing Form EX160.) Ceri and Rory have about 3 weeks to get ready for the trial. The trial takes place about 30 weeks after allocation.

Notice of trial date – this tells you when and where your trial will take place, how much the trial fee is, and the deadline for paying it.

24. The trial takes place and the judge makes a decision after hearing the evidence. The judge also deals with the issue of costs.

SeeEvidence needed to sue someone. See also Hearings in a civil claim for more details.

Evidence - information or materials relevant to proving the facts of your case. This may include information that doesn’t support your case – information that may end up helping the other side.

25. The court sends both Ceri and Rory a copy of the court order containing the judgment.

Judgment - the judge’s written decision.

April 2020
Thanks to the Bar Standards Board for funding the creation of this guide.
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