How to take legal action
First published 05 October 2018 • Updated 03 July 2019
If you want compensation for something that’s gone wrong or believe your legal rights have been violated, you have the option of legal action. This can be a costly and stressful process, so it helps to have some idea of what to expect before you go down this route.
When can I take legal action?
Taking legal action in a non-criminal case is known as litigation. In litigation, neither party is seeking for the other to face imprisonment or fines, though they may be seeking a financial settlement. More broadly, litigation is about asking the court to resolve a conflict that cannot be otherwise settled.
Here are some of the common kinds of litigation that the courts settle:
- Accident claims – if you’ve had an injury that’s affected your wellbeing and you believe it wasn’t your fault.
- Property disputes – when you have issues with boundaries, neighbours, landlord/tenant contracts, joint ownership confusions etc.
- Professional negligence – if a professional working for you fails to do their job properly, which causes you a loss.
- Small claims – when you are owed money, e.g. getting refunds from faulty products, disputing fines etc. you can claim for a total of £10,000 through the small claims court in England and Wales.
- Divorce and family law – when you need to establish agreements or financial settlements after your marriage or civil partnership breaks down.
Should I hire a solicitor?
Although you’re not legally required to have a solicitor to take disputes to court, you’ll have a far higher chance of success if you use one. Law is a highly complex area, so even if you think your case is absolutely watertight you can still lose on a technicality – something a solicitor can help you avoid.
A solicitor’s job is to achieve the best possible result for you, within the law. Initially he or she will work with you to try and resolve the issue without having to go to court by negotiating with the other party (this is far less stressful and costly). If the matter does need to go to court, they will prepare a case and can represent you (or instruct a barrister to represent you), so you don’t have to speak directly to the court.
Solicitors often specialise in particular areas of law, so you should find a solicitor with expertise in the relevant area.
I can’t afford a solicitor. What should I do?
If you’re on a low income and worried about the expense of a solicitor, you can apply for legal aid to help cover the costs. Alternatively, you can represent yourself and talk directly to the court if you wish. Some people choose to do this because they think it will help their case, but it’s a very high-risk strategy unless you genuinely happen to be an expert in that area of law.
What are my alternatives to taking legal action?
Before taking legal action, consider other avenues. The courts may not look favourably on your case if they feel the issue could have been resolved without requiring their time. It can also prove costly if you’re claim is not successful and you can’t recoup your solicitor fees.
If your dispute is with a business, you should see if you can resolve it through its complaint procedure first or by going through a trade association (if the company is registered to one). You should also check if the company has an alternative dispute resolution scheme. These are set up to resolve claims without having to go through the courts. Industry Ombudsman can help if you’re not getting anywhere through the company directly. Also, if you paid by credit card you might be covered by section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act and could get a refund through your credit card provider.
For non-commercial disputes, such as those with neighbours, it’s worth trying to sort it out informally first. Write them a letter if you feel you can’t speak to them in person about the problem, and try not to be threatening (as this might prompt them to get a solicitor involved!). One possible solution is to use a mediation service, which involves an impartial arbitrator going between the two parties to help resolve the issue. There are costs associated with this, but it’s generally cheaper than taking legal action.
If you’ve tried these routes and feel you’re not getting anywhere, it might be time to consider court action.
What should I do if someone takes legal action against me?
If you receive a letter from a person, business or solicitor saying you owe them money or that they are considering taking you to court, try to keep calm. The case might not get to court if it doesn’t hold any substantial evidence.
There are a few options available to you. If you agree that you owe money or have breached a contract, you could simply agree to meet their full demands. But if this isn’t the case or you can’t afford it, you can refuse to pay or negotiate a different settlement. A solicitor will negotiate on your behalf and, if required, build a case to support you in court.
I’ve been accused of committing a crime. What should I do?
If you’re arrested or accused of committing a crime, you should speak to a solicitor straight away. Anything you say or do in relation to the allegation could affect your case, so they will advise you on the best way to approach any questioning.
Your solicitor’s aim is to help you avoid a guilty verdict, or to receive the lowest possible sentence or fine if you are found guilty. Their job is to dispute the prosecution’s case and challenge the validity of any evidence against you. Your solicitor will suggest the most appropriate plea (i.e. whether you claim to be guilty or not guilty), create a case in your favour and instruct a barrister to represent you in court. When choosing your solicitor, make sure they have plenty of experience in criminal law, ideally in the relevant area.