Avoid going to court if possible

This is the message from Liz Barclay who is the Government’s Small Business Commissioner

Avoid going to court if possible

Sadly, and frequently, we have to explain to callers that there is sometimes no other option but to go to court to resolve their business-to-business dispute. But we do this with a heavy heart, because legal action should really be the last resort.

A long, drawn out court case can cause stress, create physical and mental problems, along with other ongoing financial issues too. It is to be avoided if possible. As George Herbert, a famous 17th century British poet once remarked: “A lean compromise is better than a fat lawsuit.”

As the UK’s Small Business Commissioner, my department may be able to help businesses that have sent an invoice to a bigger customer, but are still awaiting payment beyond the agreed period of time.

The Office of the Small Business Commissioner is a Government Department opened in 2016 to help businesses which have a workforce of 49 people and less. According to our website we are ‘an independent public body set up to tackle late payment and unfavourable payment practices in the private sector.’

With your consent, we do battle on your behalf and get your invoices paid. The dispute resolution team has a brilliant track record in getting overdue amounts paid quickly. What we can’t do is to get your customer to pay sooner if you have agreed to wait 60, 90 or 120 days for payment, following delivery of goods and products.

Whether it’s written down or just agreed verbally, it’s still an agreement reached with your customer. And no one can intervene unless that customer breaches the agreement. Beyond payment disputes, we can provide information to help you run your business.

We can also point you in the direction of other sources of help and advice. But we can’t intervene in disputes involving individual consumers or other small businesses – other than give out useful information.

However, we can’t intervene where a provider of services (such as an energy supplier or mobile phone company) isn’t delivering that agreed service. Perhaps they want to disconnect you because you haven’t paid, or they are not prepared to negotiate reduced payments. 

The bottom line is that sometimes when you’ve attempted all available avenues, and have reached a dead end, there is no other option remaining but to take legal action. But come to us first and we will help you if possible. Don’t start legal action without talking to The Office of the Small Business Commissioner. Please understand that once you start legal action we can no longer help in any way.  

In many situations where we can’t help, legal action may be your only option. Unfortunately, sometimes, despite feeling aggrieved at your treatment by a large company, the only option is to drop it, learn and move on. If no one else can help, it is often best to learn from experience, rather than go to court.

The courts are part of the system of protection in cases where there is no other ‘department’, regulator or organisation able to assist you with your grievance. But with the best will in the world, the Government cannot legislate for everything that could possibly cause disputes in business.

However, as the French Philosopher Jean de la Bruyere said: “Avoid lawsuits beyond all things. They pervert your conscience, impair your health, and dissipate your property.”

The courts can decide but you need to be prepared for the struggles ahead. A lawsuit means paperwork, money, time, effort, capacity and distraction. It can take too much attention away from running a business.

Sometimes even a positive result in your favour can cost so much in terms of time, money and effort that it’s not really worth it. It might also mean that you could get a reputation for being litigious and difficult to work with. And this could cost you future work and hinder your business. In other words, you could end up as a ‘loser’, even when you ‘win’ via the courts.

Where possible we are here to help: whether in a dispute with a large company regarding late payment or simply to offer information and support.

Liz Barclay
Liz Barclay

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