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Small claims court take on big firms

Reader Marian used the small claims court in a dispute with EDF – she lost her case, but says it was a useful experience

READER Marian Watts used the small claims court in a dispute with EDF – she lost her case, but says it was a useful learning experience.

Mrs Watts, from Ile-de-France, took action after a power surge damaged her radiators in September
2011, she said.
“They were repairing a transformer in the village and made a mistake. I couldn’t get the radiators repaired until February 2012, so spent my winter without heat.
“When I complained to EDF they said they were not responsible. My insurers paid for the damage in the end – €8,000 – but I claimed for harm in having no heating for the winter.
I had to get extra electric heaters, which cost a lot to run, and
used my chimney fire more than I would have done.”

In July last year Mrs Watts applied to the small claims court in Fontainebleau, which sits in a small courtroom in the building of the main tribunal de grande instance.

Before applying, she recommends seeking advice from one of the free legal centres (maison de
justice et du droit) located in many towns. They can advise on matters like what part of the Code Civil your claim is based on, or how much interest it is reasonable to claim.

You should make your claim as clear as possible and back it up with documents.
It is worth trying if you have a small claim as all it costs is a €35 fee, plus travel expenses, and making yourself available for the hearing.
You will be told of the date in advance by letter.

“At Fontainebleau the judge comes from Paris and knows which days she is available each month.
“They call everyone at 9.00 and they try to get through everything in the morning.
The judge dealt first with cases to be postponed to a later date [reports] then those for which an avocat had been hired. If you haven’t hired one you need to be prepared to wait.”

She added: “It’s not so bad – the time spent in court can be quite entertaining. The court dealt with things like a broken zip on a leather coat repaired by a shopkeeper but whose customer still was not satisfied; a builder who would not return the customer’s down payment though he had never done the work; a property owner who refused to refund the rental deposit to a tenant without good reason – a slice of life.”

When you are called, she said you should call the judge Monsieur le Président or Madame la Présidente
and be willing to ex plain what has happened in full.

The opposing party, if present, has to listen without interrupting and when he or she has the chance to defend themselves, you are not allowed to interrupt them.

The judge takes notes and asks for copies of all documents that have been seen by both parties.
You will have the chance to respond to points the other party makes.
She said that the judge may ask that the parties seek resolution through a conciliateur [mediator] appointed by the court.
If this fails the case comes back to the court for a decision.
The judge also has the option of transferring the case to a higher court.

Once the judge has all the information, he or she will tell you at what date the decision will be declared [le délibéré].
This will be posted to you a few days later. If it is in your favour the amount due from the other party will be indicated. Or you will be turned down [débouté].

Mrs Watts said in her case the court accepted EDF’s case that it was not responsible for the consequences
of her losing her heating.

There were two hearings because initially EDF’s avocat had asked for extra time and the case was put off. She received the decision that she had lost at the start of this year (2013)

“It was a learning experience,” she said.

“As a result a friend tried it too. She had paid €1,200 to have a double-glazed back door put in and the tradesman didn’t come and wouldn’t give the money back.
“At the court hearing he turned up with a cheque, so it had put pressure on him. The court
is now deciding if he owes her interest.”

She said she learned the importance of having the right documents – for example a copy of a cheque you paid.
You can ask your bank for this, but it can be time-consuming, she said, as they have to get the copy from the payee’s bank.

“It is best, whenever you make out a large cheque, to take a photocopy of it, and then you
have proof.”

She added: “I’m not sure in the future if I would use the court for a case against EDF – they were willing to throw so much money at it just not to be proved wrong.
“They used an avocat from Paris who came out twice and would have cost more than I was claiming for. However I would use it for disputes with individuals.
“It would be ideal for landlord and tenant claims, for example – say the tenant breaks something
and won’t pay, or the landlord won’t pay a bill.”

Mrs Watts said you need good French but you can bring in outside help.
“Those who can officially help include a barrister, spouse, civil partner, relations and employees, but when I went with my friend the judge did not object to me translating for her.”

What is the juge de proximité and how does court work?
THE juge de proximité was created in 2002 and runs the lowest rung of the French courts system, the juridiction de proximité.

It is a voluntary post, often held by retired avocats who receive a small allowance and travel costs and are given some training if they do not have previous legal experience.

They are nominated for a seven year period on the basis of professional experience or legal knowledge and must retire when they reach 75.

The juridiction de proximité is in place until the start of 2015, when, due to recent changes, the next tier courts – the tribunal d’instance – will take up their work.

A Justice Ministry spokesman said however that the judges will continue to work as a support to the professional ones in these other courts.

In the longer-term their role will depend on a review currently being undertaken which is due to finish by the end of this year.

Avocat Gerard Barron from Boulogne-sur-Mer said: “The professional magistrates in general didn’t like the idea of laymen doing their job and there was a basic aversion to them because they looked like old-style juges de paix, equivalent to British JPs, who officiated until the end of the Third Republic.
The government says the system didn’t work; but I think it is a case of it systematically repealing everything previous right wing governments had put in place to alleviate the overworked courts.”

How to make a claim
- Collate documents proving the case.
- Download a declaration form (www. tinyurl. com/small-claims-form) and complete it, including capital sums due to you and, if appropriate, late payment interest as well as your expenses, including the €35 application fee, though this is waived if you are entitled to legal aid (aide juridictionnelle ) due to a low income.
-Send this, with the fee, to the office (greffe) of the court for the area where you live. You may attach copies of your documents but it is not obligatory. Find the address at:
-The court will call you for a certain date
- Send the other party a copy of the papers you will show the judge. This is called the procédure contradictoire, and is so the defendant understands the claims being made against them.

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