For the second article in his dispute resolution series for Business Advice, solicitor David Walker gives readers a guideline on how to successfully win a court case without a lawyer.
In my last article I said, perhaps controversially, that recovering an unpaid invoice is actually quite simple. Well, I meant it. However, to get paid, you must take full responsibility for recovering what you’re owed and that means going to court if you have to.
For many people, the thought of going to court is seriously off-putting. In fact, I’ve known people who would rather write the invoice off than stand up in front of a judge due to their fear of public speaking. This is a real shame because it isn’t as bad as you might imagine.
But if you are concerned about going to court, think about it from your client’s perspective. If they don’t have a good reason for not paying, they’re even less likely to want to explain themselves to a judge.
This gives you a huge psychological advantage over your client, so use it to your maximum benefit.
Next, it’s important to understand that you don’t need a rock solid case to win a court case. Obviously, you want your case to be as strong as possible, but to win, your case only needs to be slightly better than average.
That’s because an unpaid invoice is a civil matter, so it will be decided on the “balance of probabilities”. This is not a criminal matter where a case has to be proved “beyond all reasonable doubt”.
To win a court case, all you have to do is persuade the judge that you have a better case than your client and to do this you need to show evidence of four things, which I have explained below.
1. You have a legally binding contract with your client.
A judge won’t automatically assume you have a legally binding contract with your client. You must prove it.
If you have a signed, written contract you can simply show a copy to the judge and there will be very little doubt over what was agreed.
However, if you have a verbal contract, you must be very clear about the terms agreed. You will need to explain to the judge when the contract was entered into and what you both said to form the contract. Be as specific as you can.
In a previous article I explained what elements must be present to form a legally binding contract, so refer back to that if you need to.
2.You fulfilled your obligations under the contract
This should be really simple to prove. Your contract should state quite clearly what your obligations are, so refer back to it and provide evidence of everything you have done.
Now, if there’s going to be a disagreement between you and your client, this is the stage where it is most likely to occur.
The argument may not be whether you or have or haven’t done the work – it might be over the standard of your work, the results you achieved or whether it was delivered on time.
If your client raises these arguments, explain to the judge why you didn’t or couldn’t fulfil your obligations precisely as set out in the contract. It might not be fatal to your claim if there are good reasons why. For example, if you were late providing a service but the delays were caused by your client, you should explain this.
3. Fulfilling your obligations entitles you to be paid
After showing that you have fulfilled your part of the bargain, provide evidence that you have invoiced the right amount at the right time.
4. Your client hasn’t paid
The final stage is proving to a judge that your client hasn’t paid. Once again, this should be nice and simple. Either they have, or they haven’t.
However, this is another situation where a dispute may arise – the argument may be over the amount to be paid.
If you are charging anything other than a fixed fee, refer back to your contract. See what it says about calculating fees and then think about what evidence you have to show how your fees have been incurred. For example, do you have time sheets showing how long you have spent providing the service?
If you don’t have any evidence, you’re going to struggle to prove that you should be paid the amount you’re claiming. In this situation, the judge will most likely award you what he considers to be a reasonable amount for the work you have done.
So, be prepared to argue what you consider is reasonable and expect your client to be saying the opposite.
As you will see, having a legally binding contract is crucial to the success of any claim. When you have a legally binding contract, the case becomes a presentation of facts backed up with evidence.
When you present your case to a judge in this way, you have the best chance to win a court case, and your client being ordered to pay what they owe you.
If you don’t have legally binding contracts with all of your clients, I strongly urge you to put them in place now. If you don’t and you get into a dispute, you will struggle to win your case and get paid the money you are owed.
Miss the first article in the series? Find out how to effectively tackle unpaid invoices.
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