By Ian Pollock
Personal finance reporter, BBC News
About 100,000 people this year are likely to take advantage of an online government service to sue those who owe them money.
Things have changed since Dickens' times when debtors went to prison
It is called Money Claim Online, which started in 2002 and is an internet version of the small claims court.
The chances of success when using it seem high.
Only 20% of claims are defended, which means they end up being heard by a judge in a county court.
Most of the rest are undefended - so the claimant gets a court order automatically in his favour - or the defendant admits he owes the money and offers to pay by instalments or in full.
A few claims collapse because the claimant just gives up, perhaps if the defendant appears to have disappeared or gone bust.
The system is run by a government department called HM Courts Services which administers the court system in England and Wales.
The manager of Money Claim Online, Ken Fraser, says: "It's a success, it extends the service. People are no longer tied to going along in their dinner hour to their local county court."
The court service in Northern Ireland has recently started its own internet version of their small claims court.
But would-be litigants in Scotland are out of luck. There is no such online service there.
One reason for the rapid growth in the use of Money Claim Online is that thousands of people have started suing their banks for levying unfair overdraft charges.
The Consumer Action Group, which has been behind this campaign, claims that 45,000 people have registered with its own web site this year and that it knows of at least 750 claims which have been lodged with the county courts.
The CAG's founder, Mark Gander, believes a majority have probably been started using Money Claim Online.
"It is very attractive because it may be daunting to even go into a court office which will usually be full of solicitors," he says.
However he points out that where a claim is particularly complicated or detailed, there may not be enough space on the Money Claim website to fully describe it.
The online claim form has a limit of 24 lines and 1080 characters. That is because the system is aimed at simple money claims.
If your claim will not fit, then you will have to lodge it at a county court with written documents instead.
How does it work?
The online process is fairly straightforward. Click on the Money Claim Online web site and follow the menu of instructions.
It should all take about 15 minutes.
You can sue for any amount below £100,000 but you must have an address in England or Wales (or a service address here if you live abroad) and be online with an e-mail address.
Likewise, the people you are suing must also live in England or Wales.
Once you have registered and written up your claim you submit it and pay a fee by credit or debit card.
At this stage you do not have to prove your claim with evidence, you just have to state it with concise details.
It is important to note that the online service will not tell you if you have a valid claim. For that you will need to ask a solicitor or a Citizens Advice Bureau.
But you must be telling the truth, otherwise you could be prosecuted for contempt of court.
A bulk processing centre in Northampton then sends out the documentation to the defendants in the name of Northampton County Court, telling them you are demanding the money.
What happens next?
The defendant has 14 days in which to respond to the documents once they are served, which is itself reckoned to be 5 days after they were posted.
The CAG has been encouraging people to use Money Claim online
If he simply ignores the claim then you can use the online system to request judgement by default and even ask the court to enforce your claim immediately by sending round the bailiffs.
Alternative responses from the defendant are
- paying in full
- admitting he owes all the money but fails to offer payment
- asks for time to pay
- admits he owes some money but not all of it
- or denies the claim altogether, perhaps lodging a counter-claim.
In some of these cases the online system effectively comes to a halt and you will then have to write back to Northampton, using some forms, asking for the court to make a decision.
That might be to decide on an offer of delayed or staged payments with which you are unhappy.
And if you are met with a full defence of your claim, or do not want to accept a partial offer, then it will be transferred to a county court for a conventional hearing before a judge.
If you are suing a person, that will be at his or her county court; if you are suing a business, it will be heard at your local county court.
Getting money they are owed is a regular bugbear for self-employed workers who rely on the honesty and efficiency of their clients to be paid quickly.
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) takes a keen interest in the matter as thousands of its members are freelance.
John Toner, the union's freelance organiser, deals with hundreds of complaints from members every year, worried that they are not going to be paid by publications which have commissioned their work.
He welcomes the online service but says it does not suit everyone.
"I would encourage it for people who feel confident to do it. But not everyone is. Many want assistance at each stage of the process."
And he warns that if a case is contested and ends up in a court hearing, claimants should be thoroughly prepared.
"The small claims courts are more simple than people imagine and are designed to be free of solicitors," he says.
"They are more informal but you still have to prove your case to the satisfaction of the judge and to the same standard as other courts. It comes down to hard evidence."