I glanced at my wall clock. It was 9.00pm.
I’m not in the habit of picking up phone calls after 5pm; neither do I return missed calls to unidentified persons but the number of calls this caller made seemed like an emergency. I thought that someone I knew was in trouble because the ringing was incessant.
In my line of work, many people think, every lawyer can handle any legal problem.
I picked my Tecno and dialed back.
‘Counsel, my name is X,’ his voice stuttered. ‘I need your help.’
‘Your call seemed urgent,’ confirming it was not a prank; I got myself to respond, though irritated at the interruption.
‘Counsel, can you handle my small claim?’
Imagine my dismay. A small claim? At that time of the night? Couldn’t this person wait another day?
I have avoided active litigation for a reason: clients often act hastily. They ask for legal services from one too many lawyers and expect counsel to ‘hijack’ another’s case. Lawyers have ethics and etiquette they follow. I could have switched off my phone and brushed him off but I remembered my oath and the fact that small claims were way out of my area of duty.
Instead, I offered to hear him out and explained a few things I thought he needed to know about his matter. Most of our conversation touched on the following.
Origin of small claims in Uganda
The Judiciary embarked on a revamp exercise in its system to expedite dispute resolution in commercial claims of lesser amounts in a speedy manner. The Small Claims Procedure is one of its fast track mechanisms in the country’s lengthy adversarial system.
Majority of Small claims are handled in the Magistrates Courts whose pecuniary (money) jurisdiction handles less than 50million in straight cases: ‘straight’ as in clear facts, issues, parties, etc.
The Judicature (Small Claims Procedure) Rules, 2011; (Statutory Instrument No.25 of 2011) provides for the law touching on small claims.
What is a small claim?
A small claim is a legal suit whose subject matter does not exceed UGX.10million. A litigant has an option of instituting a claim in the Small Claims Court or not. The defendant may be an individual or a body corporate. It is usually a contractual breach but does not include the following scenarios:
• Claims against the government
• Family disputes and probate matters
• Defamation, wrongful arrest, malicious prosecution etc
• Contracts of and for service, etc.
Can a lawyer represent you under a Small Claim Procedure?
No. But you can obtain legal advice. Services under the Small Claims Procedure are performed by a Court Clerk at no cost. This is good news to litigants who often look out for pauper suits.
Procedure of instituting a Small Claim
• Formally communicate to the alleged defendant informing him/her of your claim and your readiness to settle the matter amicably.
• If after 14 days, the alleged defendant does not respond or comply, lodge a formal complaint at your local court’s Clerk office with proof of your previous correspondence on the matter. All documents are necessary.
Duties of the Court Clerk
• The Clerk will fill the claim form
• Prepare summons
• Inform you of the hearing date
• Execute/sign/endorse your claim form and summons: give them to you to serve of the alleged defendant.
What do you do next?
• Serve a copy of the claim and summons to the alleged defendant
• You can as well pay a recognised court process server to do this
• Obtain a signed received copy of the claim and summons from the alleged defendant as proof of service
• If served through a process server, he/she will sign an affidavit of service as proof of service
What will the defendant do?
• Settle the claim i.e. pay your claim. You are obligated to give the defendant a written receipt or acknowledgement that your claim has been settled. You must also notify the Clerk of the settlement by filing the receipt in court. The Clerk will sign on it and the matter will be settled.
• Make a defense by writing and delivering a written statement of defence detailing his/her/its defence; have it filed in court and served upon you, the claimant
• Prepare for a court hearing
• The presiding officer may direct to settle the matter alternatively vide arbitration or mediation. Where you reach consent, the presiding officer will record the consent and it is upon you to follow up until the settlement is made. If not, you inform the presiding officer who will commence with a hearing.
• Appear in person
• Carry along all the documents on which your claim lies.
• Have your witnesses attend
• Bring proof of service on the alleged defendant
• Submit your documents since this is an informal/simple setting. The procedure is not as stringent as it is when a lawyer is involved.
• Respond to the presiding officer’s queries and when given the opportunity, notify the presiding officer of the other party’s or their witness’ inconsistent facts/story/statements/testimony because there will be no cross examination.
• You will receive a judgment immediately or 14 days after the hearing or whenever the presiding officer says he/she will give it.
• Judgment is final. Appeals like in ordinary courts of law are not entertained
• If dissatisfied with the judgment you can apply for review on grounds of discovery of new evidence that is crucial to your case and could have swayed the judgment in your favour. Other grounds are clerical errors, fraud, mistake and any other as court may direct.
• This application must be made within a year from the time of discovery
• Fulfill all orders against you
• If you win, follow up on the judgment debtor to fulfill his/her/its obligation. A court Clerk will help you on how to enforce a judgment against the judgment-debtor.
I kept my call brief, switched off my phone immediately after explaining to Mr. X that I could not take over his matter since another capable legal officer, the Clerk, had every right to handle it.
‘Next time, please call during working hours,’ I implored him, also blaming myself for calling back at the odd hour.
Mr. X must have felt ignored because I did not accept to take him on as a full-time client but he will never know how much he saved me from a dreadful day in court where my senior (nee Judge) would have shushed me for hijacking his sessions within his turf. Mr. X became the client that won’t stop calling at odd hours and yes, I blacklisted him.
This article appears in our digital law newsletter, The Deuteronomy Vol 8, Issue 3 of August 18th, 2017
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