Who to sue?

This guide will take you through the key steps to identify and find the right defendant to sue. It is part of our series about sorting out a dispute and going to a civil court.
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Find the right person or company

What is a defendant?

‘Defendant’ is what the law calls the person, company or organisation that you take court action against. Sometimes there may be more than one defendant because, for example, you think that more than just the one person, company or organisation shares responsibility for what happened to you.

This guide will help you find the right defendant if you:

  • are 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.

See ‘Should I sue?’ for useful background information on issuing a claim and ‘Suing in the civil court – route map’ to get an overview of what a typical case might look like.

It is not for you if you are involved in:

  • a criminal case,
  • a family case (such as an application for a domestic violence injunction or a divorce),
  • a housing disrepair or housing possession case including mortgage possession,
  • injunctions (including court claims about anti-social behaviour)
  • a medical accident case,
  • a case involving defamation (that is libel or slander) or
  • a tribunal case (such as a discrimination, employment or immigration case).

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

March 2018

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.

It's not always obvious who to sue

What is 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, 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.

Jane's story

... When I complained to my boss about tripping over the cleaner's cable, he not only said it was all my own fault, but also that it was nothing to do with him.  He said he rented the office space, and the cleaner was supplied by the landlord through an external cleaning company, and I should take it up with them. I started anyway by writing to my boss's company, and they referred it to their insurers, who also told me it was the cleaning company's problem. I thought about it carefully, and to be on the safe side I sued my employer and the cleaning company, and then their insurers sorted it out between them, paying me half each.  I'm very glad I didn't leave it all till the last minute to find it wasn't as simple as I thought.

Once you have decided to sue (start a court process to bring a legal claim) you need to be able to identify who may be responsible for your problem. Sometimes this is obvious but in other cases it can be hard to identify who made the mistake, made the decision or gave you the service that caused your problem.

It is also possible for someone to be responsible for what happened to you even though they did not personally cause the problem. So, for example, employers are usually held responsible for the actions of their employees, and where this is the case it is generally much better to sue the employer rather than the individual employee, as the employer is more likely to have insurance and have enough money to pay your claim.

Starting proceedings against the wrong person, company or organisation is a waste of time and money. And the court can order you to pay the legal costs of any defendant you have wrongly involved in legal proceedings. So, it is important to know the identity and accurate name of the defendant or defendants.

How to identify the right defendant

If you are having trouble identifying the right defendant or defendants there are a number of things you can do try to work it out. A practical and sensible approach is to write to everyone who might be legally responsible, saying what the problem is and why you think they are responsible, and that you will sue them as a defendant. No-one will think this a foolish step, as the modern court attitude is that all parties should co-operate on administrative matters, and on issues which help the smooth and efficient and economical running of a case. And this may also help you defend any claim for costs if they don’t respond and you sue them and it turns out they weren’t the correct defendant.

There are other steps you can and should think about, depending on what your dispute is about.

If you have been dealing with an insurer, the correct defendant is still the individual or organisation that caused your problem.  Do not be misled into suing the insurer! But there are special provisions for dealing direct with the insurer in some personal injury and road traffic cases.

If you want to sue your employer, you will need to find your letter of appointment or contract of employment, to make sure you have got the right organisation. Looking at your wage slip may not be enough, as some people are paid by an organisation which is not actually their employer. For example, if you work in a voluntary (religious) school, the local authority pays the wage bill, but the correct defendant will probably be the governing body of the school.

Some organisations outsource work, and their workers wear a uniform of that company, or drive a vehicle with the company logo, but are not treated as employees, and so the organisation may say they are not responsible for the problem and refer you to the outsourced contractor or subcontractor.

If you are a tenant, you might find you have lots of dealings with a managing agent rather than your landlord. It is natural to feel the managing agents should be the defendant, but the correct defendant is almost certainly the landlord – you will need to check your tenancy agreement.

If you are suing a company, you need to check if you are suing a sole trader or a partnership. This is where individuals, possibly trading under a trading name, carry full legal and financial responsibility for their actions. You need to make sure you get the names exactly right, including any trading names. You may be suing a limited company (their name ends with ‘Ltd’) or public liability company (their name ends with ‘plc’), when what you can actually receive from your claim is generally limited by the company’s assets or their insurance if they have it. Again, you need to check to get the name of the defendant exactly right.  

How to find the right address for the defendant

Once you are sure you have identified the right defendant then you need to find them, and ensure you get the right address where you are confident that they will receive court papers.

Unless you would be out of time for issuing your claim (see Time limits for suing someone) you should not issue proceedings unless and until you have the defendant’s correct address (called the ‘address for service’) as you have a very limited time – four months -  to make sure they receive the issued court claim.

In the case of a limited company or plc, it will be the registered address.

If you have been dealing with an insurer, you will still need to use the defendant's address, not the insurer's address. Sometimes insurers will allow you to use their address, or the address of a firm of solicitors to accept court papers, but you have to ask them and get a reply in writing, and let the court have a copy of that letter of permission. This can be well worth doing, as you have four months after issue of proceedings to get the papers to the defendant, and the insurers or their solicitors are often more reliable in their dealings than a defendant in person.

If you are finding it difficult to trace your defendant you could try searching central or local records.

For example, you can:

  • search for information about the registered keeper of a vehicle from DVLA
  • find current and past residents at an address in the Electoral Register either at your local town hall or library or on the internet.

You will need to allow plenty of time for this, as data protection laws mean that many keepers of data require a reason (possibly in writing) to allow you access – you may need to say it is for the purpose of litigation.

Enquiry agents provide tracing services. You may want to consider this option but check the cost before you go ahead. Some enquiry agents will agree not to charge if they are unable to trace the defendant. This is sometimes referred to as ‘no trace, no fee’. You can find an enquiry agent through the Association of British Investigators  or the Institute of Professional Investigators.

If you are not sure who is legally responsible for what happened in your case, you may be able to get legal advice.

Next steps

Now that you know who the right defendant or defendants are, and the correct address for issuing proceedings, you may want to look at other guides in this series:

What does it mean?

Address for service – Address for service - the defendant's correct address for the purpose of court proceedings. If it is an individual, it is likely to be their home address. If it is a company it will be their registered address, which could be somewhere entirely different from where your problem occurred.

Assets - money and savings and other valuable items which can be used to pay debts, for example, a house, flat, jewellery or car.

Civil court – a court, usually a county court, where you can bring a claim for damages (financial compensation) against someone who has wrongly caused you loss, damage or injury.

Defendant - person or organisation the case is brought against.

Enquiry agent - a person or business who can be hired to find someone or to find things out about someone, for example, if they have assets.

Issue of proceedings – the formal start to the court proceedings.

Litigant in person – a person bringing or defending a claim without a solicitor or barrister.

Litigation – the process of bringing a claim or taking legal action.

Party – a person or group of people forming one side in a dispute.

Parties – both sides in the dispute.

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, 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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Acknowledgements

This guide was produced by Law for Life's Advicenow project.

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.

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