Annette from Newcastle writes: "My 24-year-old daughter starts a postgraduate course at a London college in the coming term. Together with a girlfriend, she was searching for rented accommodation in west London.
Recently, it seemed that she had struck lucky, using an apparently reputable local estate agent. She inspected a flat for which the landlord was seeking a rent of £375 a week. After negotiating with the agent, a price of £325 was agreed. She was asked to pay two weeks rent as a holding deposit, while the paperwork was prepared. This was said to be refundable if the rental did not go through. My daughter duly paid the agent £650 by cheque.
A few days later he phoned her and apologised profusely, saying that he had made a mistake and the landlord would not accept a penny under £350 per week. He offered to make good the £25 per week shortfall himself, although he did not say for how long. He then asked my daughter to meet the landlord, which she did. She found him to be a sleazy character, who asked her a lot of embarrassing questions about her personal life.
My daughter felt distinctly uncomfortable. She phoned the agent to say she no longer wanted to go through with the rental. He promised to return her deposit in full, but despite many subsequent phone calls he has not done so, and is now avoiding her calls. She has no paperwork. Is there anything she can do to recover the deposit, or will this simply be a question of throwing good money after bad? For a student, of course, £650 is a lot to lose."
Annette, my instincts tell me your daughter made a wise decision by pulling out. Both the landlord and this estate agent sound unsavoury.
There was a time not so long ago when a lay person could not realistically hope to bring a civil claim without employing a solicitor and often also a junior counsel, and the high legal and court costs meant in effect that it was simply not worth suing for any sum below an arbitrary figure of, say, £5,000.
However, there has been a sea-change in recent years, largely thanks to the root-and branch reforms of our civil justice system by that great judge, Lord Harry Woolf.
I confess that I previously had very little experience of what is now called the Small Claims Court. Your question has given me the opportunity to discover more about it. All claims under £5,000 are now allocated routinely to this court, which is effectively a junior branch of the County Court. Its judges and officials are encouraged to act informally, and with a minimum of legal technicality, the idea being that litigants acting in person are made to feel as comfortable as possible.
It is probably a bit like the American TV show, Judge Judy. Strict rules of evidence and procedure do not apply. Much of the paperwork can be downloaded and even completed online. I would refer you to the www.direct.gov.uk website, but also the excellent guidance which can be found on the Citizens Advice Bureau website (www.citizensadvice.org.uk). I was amazed how user-friendly both these sites are, and I doubt that any reasonably intelligent person will have any difficulty in bringing or defending a claim under £5,000, or need to employ a lawyer.
Your daughter should now write out a full account of her dealings with the estate agent and the landlord, including the detail of each conversation and phone call chronologically. She should, of course, obtain the paid cheque from her bank. I see no reason in principle why she should not be believed, despite most of the transactions being oral. If you, or perhaps her girlfriend, were also relevant witnesses to any of these events, then you should each write down your full recollections similarly.
The Small Claims Court can also offer free mediation services as an alternative to a contested hearing. Costs are not normally awarded to either side, win or lose. Court fees are minimal. The online guidance is so straightforward, that I frankly doubt there is anything more for me to say, other than to wish your daughter good luck in her claim.