Consumer Rights: 'The builder has vanished with my £8,000'

Landlord could sue for fraud or take workman to the small claims court, but there is no guarantee of getting the cash back

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The Independent Online

I've been having repair work done over the summer on two flats I rent out to students. The builder I contracted did do some of the agreed work and did it quite well but then he started asking for more money for materials he'd already been given money to buy and saying that he was short of cash.

Because we were about half way through the work and it seemed to be a simple cashflow problem that was delaying things I handed over about £8,000 in total. The builder then did a complete disappearing act. I had to get on with the work and finish it with the help of other people I knew to get it done in time.

Despite going round to his house I seem to be drawing blanks. On legal advice I have written asking for the money back within 14 days or his proposal for paying the money back but I don't want to lose more by taking him to court if this doesn't work.

Can I report him to the police for fraud? What other steps would you suggest?

MS by email

Sometimes builders run into problems like this when they spend the money you've given them on other things. If something has gone wrong on another job it's possible he had to put that right at his own expense and used your money to pay for the replacement materials. However, it might be that he's got a gambling problem or simply run off with your cash.

As fraud is a criminal charge the police would have to feel there is enough evidence that he meant to defraud you to make it worthwhile prosecuting and the Crown Prosecution service would have to be convinced it should proceed. He might be found guilty and punished but that doesn't get you your money back. If you feel seeing him punished would be enough you might decide to take this route.

However, the small claims procedure in the county court deals with claims up to £5,000 but, if both sides, agree the court can use the procedure to settle bigger claims. By using the small claims process you can represent yourself and avoid the cost of using a solicitor and you don't run the danger of having to pay the other side's costs if you lose the case.

Check with your local trading standards department. Officers there may know about this builder and whether or not he's done this kind of thing before. They may even be able to help you negotiate a settlement or mediate a solution.

The crux of the matter is that he may not have any money with which to pay you. Even if you do get a court decision in your favour he may not own the property he's living in. His van and tools of his trade may belong to someone else. You could spend a fair bit getting a civil court to rule he owes you the money and still not get it back.

Make sure you keep copies of any correspondence you have with this man including emails. Make sure you spell out clearly exactly what happened if you do make a claim through the courts as it will be very difficult to bring additional points up later and take any advice the trading standards department or your solicitor gives you. Good luck.

When my husband died recently a friend suggested that I should be entitled to some help from the welfare benefit system.

I am 54 and am working so I don't think that can be the case, but it's been a very expensive time so my savings have gone down dramatically and I just want to check whether she could possibly be right.

FK, by email

As you are under pension age you may be able to claim a bereavement payment. It will depend on whether your husband paid national insurance contributions, the circumstances of his death and whether he was entitled to a state retirement pension before he died.

When you fill in the claim form you'll be asked to give your late husband's National Insurance number and details of his recent jobs. The payment is £2,000 and it's tax free.

You may also be able to claim bereavement allowance or widowed parent's allowance. The bereavement allowance is a weekly amount that's paid for a year after the death and you could get up to £105 a week.

You should also apply for a reduction in your council tax.

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