How does a civil court case commence? 

Where there is a dispute concerning a civil matter, the parties should try to resolve thedispute without the need for formal court proceedings, which can be costly and time consuming.

If the dispute cannot be resolved by the parties themselves, there are alternative ways to try to avoid court proceedings, such as mediation or arbitration. If a settlement still cannot be reached, court action may be necessary.

Pre-action protocols

In many types of cases there are ‘pre-action protocols’ that should be followed before formal proceedings are commenced. There are pre-action protocols for a number of different types of cases ranging from personal injury to construction, and from housing disrepair to professional negligence.

The aim of pre-action protocols is to encourage early settlement of dispute without the need to go to a full court hearing. Early exchange of information is encouraged, and certain steps must be followed under the protocol where there is a dispute that may lead to litigation. For instance, under the personal injury pre-action protocol, the claimant should set out their case clearly, together with details of any losses, injuries, etc. – sending this information to the defendant.

The defendant then has three months to investigate and respond to the claim, and must reply with either an acceptance of liability, or denial of liability and their reasons. If expert evidence is needed then the parties should try to use a single joint expert.

If the matter still cannot be resolved and court proceedings become inevitable, the Civil Court Rules (CPR) must be followed.

Which court is appropriate?

A civil claim will be dealt with by either the County Court or the High Court, depending on the value of the claim and its complexity. Claims with a value of up to £15,000 are started at the County Court. If the claim is higher in value, the claimant can usually decide which court to issue proceedings in, subject to exceptions: personal injuries cases of less than £50,000 must start in the County Court, and defamation cases must go straight to the High Court.

Issuing a claim

To start a claim, form ‘N1’ must be completed and returned. Claimants starting proceedings in the County Court can chose one of many county court locations throughout England and Wales, while there are more than 40 district registries of the High Court (or the main court at the Royal Courts of Justice in London).

Defending a claim

When the defendant receives a claim form there are several options:

  • The defendant may admit the claim and pay the full amount of damages requested.
  • The defendant may dispute the claim – returning a Form N9, or filing a defence with the court within 14 days of receiving the claim form.
  • If the defendant does nothing, the claimant may ask the court to make an order in default ordering that the defendant makes payment of the damages claimed.
  • If the defendant disputes the claim, the court will allocate it to the appropriate ‘track’.

Allocation of cases

The decision as to which track is appropriate for a given claim will be made either by a District Judge of the County Court, or the Master (procedural) Judge of the High Court, depending on which court issues the claim. To help the judges in deciding what track to allocate the case to, all parties must complete and return an allocation questionnaire.

What ‘tracks’ can be used?

There are three types of ‘tracks’ that civil cases may follow:

  • The small claims track: for disputes involving claims valued at less than £10,000, except for personal injury cases and housing cases where the limit is usually £1,000.
  • The Fast Track: for straightforward disputes involving claims between £10,000 and £25,000; and some personal injury claims (and others).
  • The Multi-Track: for cases involving claims of more than £25,000; or lower value claims that involve complex issues of law or evidence.

Cases can be transferred between the County Court and the High Court where the judge decides it is appropriate.

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Article written by...
Lucy Trevelyan LLB
Lucy Trevelyan LLB

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Lucy graduated in law from the University of Greenwich, and is also an NCTJ trained journalist. A legal writer and editor with over 20 years' experience writing about the law.