'Do-it-yourself' justice to rise: Mackay expected to increase damages ceiling for cases in small claims courts

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The Independent Online
THE RANGE of cases heard in small claims courts - where costs are kept low through do-it-yourself justice, and lawyers are a rarity - is expected to double.

Solicitors believe that Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the Lord Chancellor, will announce this autumn that all cases where litigants are claiming damages up to pounds 2,000 should be heard in such courts; the present limit is pounds 1,000. Lord Mackay may raise the ceiling even further, possibly as high as pounds 5,000, although this is thought unlikely. The small claims procedure promotes swift, inexpensive hearings before a district judge, and tends to discourage people from involving lawyers in cases. All claims below the pounds 1,000 ceiling are handled in this way: those above it are heard in the county court, where normal rules apply and lawyers are common.

The advantage for litigants in the small claims court is that they do not have to pay the other side's costs if they are unsuccessful, as happens in all other courts. Thus, if they represent themselves, they have little to lose by bringing an action.

The disadvantage is that there is no legal aid. If they want to employ solicitors, they will have to pay the fees themselves, whatever the outcome of the case.

The Consumers' Association says the small claims system is cheap, effective and user- friendly. Leaflets explain clearly how to 'do-it-yourself' and judges intervene to ensure fairness and equality, according to Ashley Holmes, acting head of the association's legal department. He says moves to extend the small claims process should be welcomed. However, the National Consumer Council is more cautious. Gillian Bull, its senior policy and development officer, suspects that the procedure is used more by businesses trying to reclaim small debts than by private individuals. 'The Lord Chancellor's Department needs to do some research before leaping off into some change,' she said.

The Law Society also sounded a note of caution last week. It said that in many cases, such as consumer matters, it was relatively easy for people to represent themselves. But in some personal injury cases the issues are more complex.

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