I have been involved in Court work as an Expert Witness for over twenty-five years, but rarely more than in the past couple of years. It is nowadays so easy for a disgruntled customer to apply to a Small Claims Court to settle real or imaginary disputes.
With the advent of recent Customers Protection Laws and an awareness by the Public of the power of Consumers Rights, the result has been a surge in the number of people simply applying on-line to a Courts Services for compensation or dispute resolution, without proper thought or explanation of what is really involved.
Without discussing matters with a solicitor and taking appropriate advice, the public can fill in various forms on-line and pay a standard fee, and simply push the ‘send’ button and sit back and wait for resolution by capitulation on the part of the Defendant.
Little or no thought is given to the cost and possible implications of their action. They are not happy with something and want compensation including payment of their Court costs, hoping that the Defendant will simply settle on demand.
Often of course, they get the result they want without any further problems, as the Contractor will pay or settle as they do not know how to respond to such officialdom. It is simply too much trouble to fight against a Court document, and they cannot afford to employ a solicitor to represent them.
As with all problems, it is better to prevent them from occurring in the first place. Many new outfits are so busy working on site, or spending time visiting potential customers, chasing payments, maintaining equipment and all the other tasks that their job demands, they neglect the paperwork side of their businesses. Even supplying the most basic of written quotations is too much trouble, relying instead on verbal agreements or very a sketchy letter to secure the work.
Avoiding Court Problems
I cannot overemphasise the importance of contract documents. Unless you have time to produce detailed and specified contracts, you leave yourself wide open to future disputes. There are basic on-line forms available for use as ‘tender’ documents, but they are essentially too generic to be of real value to you as a business. Their ‘tick box’ layout is useful but not necessarily relevant to the site, and any discrepancies may render the document useless.
As well as the disgruntled, there is no doubt that some customers may be considered ‘Professional Non-Payers’ and these seem to be attracted to smaller firms, knowing that they are unable to afford legal representation. They often wait until the end of a job to declare that they are unhappy and will not be paying the final bill.
Without question, the best way to avoid these difficulties is to ensure that your paperwork is in order. This discipline is essential, with time spent at the outset, producing detailed specified quotations on headed paper, including as much information as you can. Include the date and time of the visit, as well as the date of the quotation. If the job concerns or includes something that may materially change over a few weeks, e.g. a hedge cutting or mowing contract, your quote should be time limited to prevent a customer from accepting a quotation that bears no relation to the site at the time of agreement and access to site.
Therefore you will need to note existing conditions prevalent at the time of writing. If the job is weather or temperature dependent, this should also be noted and a time limit placed on acceptance. If time is ‘of the essence’ i.e the customer requires work to be completed by a certain date, this fact must be included in writing.
Think of each quotation as being a ‘story’ to be relayed to the customer, with a step by step guide as to how the job will proceed. Even simple projects such as grass cutting should be explained, by including your method of entering the site, the size of machine to be used, the condition the site should be in when you start (often regarding debris, toys, dog mess etc). You should also explain the condition you will leave the site in. This may include removing rubbish from site or leaving it placed in a compost area.
By fully detailing and explaining your quotation, you leave no room for dispute. If you do as you say, there can be no further problems, and the fact that you have followed your ‘storyline’ means you will have no need to worry about disputes.
The customer should sign an acceptance form – usually a blank space in the quotation agreement – which includes instructions of payment times, dates and method of payment. Another signature is required at the end of the job, when any minor defects can be agreed and resolved.
This discipline may seem tiresome at first, but after a while it will become second nature. As your business expands, and projects become more complex, perhaps taking on construction or landscaping jobs (which demand high standards of detail under different legislation), you will be used to working in an efficient manner.
In my experience, if a contractor has all documentation in place and the project has been completed accordingly, the chances of a dispute situation become almost non-existent.
Court cases can become very expensive. With due diligence and sound documentation you will avoid unnecessary unpleasant and time consuming worries.