Back in July 2014 I received a letter from a customer, threatening to take me to court if I didn’t give them a refund.
On 23rd January I won the court case, the judge ruled that I in no way misrepresented any work and the claimant had got the complete wrong end of the stick.
I was lucky enough to afford a defense, but I thought I’d share my experience anyway and maybe offer a few points to other website/WordPress businesses out there.
What I learned from being dragged through the UK court system.
A small point before we start, I’m based in the UK. So I’m not sure of the legal rights and responsibilities of where you are. But hopefully this’ll still offer a few pointers to keep you safe.
For one or two reasons, even though the records are public, I’m not going to name and shame the other company.
Even though they’ve caused me a great deal of stress, emailed customers and colleagues and generally made my life very difficult, I’m not interested in giving them any free traffic.
A bit of back story. We were introduced to [business] by a mutual colleague. After an initial qualifier meeting, we sent a proposal and a couple of months later (well past the 30 day clause on the contract but we let it slide) they signed and paid the deposit. 50% of the total.
We then had a preliminary design meeting with them, after which we sent some initial designs.
They were so disgusted with the designs that they wanted a part refund. When we asked what was wrong with the designs they refused to co-operate, pick up the phone or have a meeting.
Eventually they wanted a full refund. By which point my insurers had got wind of it and my solicitor was dealing with them.
Long story short, they were filling an act of misrepresentation. Against my business. On 23rd Jan 2015 we won the court case and the Judge ruled in our favour. Not only had we done nothing wrong, everything else was above board and they were way off with their claim.
So with that. Here’s what I’ve learnt.
1. Make sure you have a paper trail.
One of the saving graces of our procedure, was that we had email records of EVERYTHING. Emails are often easy to record, but meetings and phone calls can be harder.
Make sure you back up your emails and correspondence. Scan signed contracts and keep them safe.
99% of the time you’ll never need to access them again, but it does show professionalism and makes sure no one can go back on their word.
Make sure you keep a log of meetings that you took, write them in a diary or via Google Calendar. Just keep simple records.
2. Pay for someone to check over a contract.
There are some great boiler plate contracts out there. We’ve got a really good one (keep an eye out because we’ll be publishing it soon). But in any case, make sure you get someone professional to look over them and make it as tight as possible.
One of the points raised against us is that although the contract was with a Ltd (limited) company, all the finances went through a private separate company account, the invoice had all our company registration details on AND everything was branded, because we didn’t specifically give the full name anywhere on the contract (Devon Digital Design Ltd), the case was technically against me, not the business.
You can never make anything 100% watertight, but you can mitigate risk. It might seem like a waste of money and even over board for a small or micro business. But one and two person businesses are most vulnerable because bigger companies can take advantage of them.
3. Have the best insurance you can afford.
Seriously this is probably the most important one on the list. I have extremely good insurance. Full public liability and indemnity insurance.
Basically whatever happened I was covered. I had a solicitor and a barrister on the day. All the paper work, correspondence and fees were taken care of.
They’re even helping me re-write my contact and clauses to make them tighter, as well as giving me advice on how to position my portfolio.
Ask for the most cover you can get, be honest and explain your situation. Most companies even offer monthly payments.
If you’re working with anyone, make sure you have insurance. It literally saved my business.
4. Get written permission for any portfolio work and links on your site.
This was a really odd point that was raised. All our contracts state that we can show off any work that we do. However, because [business] didn’t ask us and made some grand assumptions, they assumed that EVERY LINK on the website was a website that we had designed FROM THE GROUND UP.
Ludicrous of course, the blog page was almost immediately dismissed as links are a dime a dozen. But if you have links to site on your portfolio, just do some due diligence and get an email confirmation that they’re happy for you to post a link with whatever information you’re giving.
We won that point in court anyway, but still something that we’re going to work on.
5. Make what you did as clear as possible for any portfolio work.
The only true legal protection you can ever get is making everything as clear as possible. I’d even go so far as to say that design comes second to clarity. You need to make sure that each part of your portfolio (or anything for that matter) is so clear that an idiot could understand it.
Divisive I know, but I’m just sprouting my ideas (:
6. Record your meetings.
We’ve been doing this for a while now. We ask if we can record on our smart phone any meeting we have.
It might sound paranoid, but it’s really so I can have a natural conversation, follow my meeting questions/scripts and then go over the answers later. All I ask is ‘do you mind if I can record this, just so I can go over it later?’.
Also, we have meeting and consultations scripts. A series of questions that we fill out and always keep the written answers. Beyond being good practice for referring back to later. It makes you look way more professional.
Also, if anyone questions any decisions you make, you can always justify them with notes taken during the meetings.
7. Trust your gut, don’t work with difficult people.
I had a bad feeling about [business] during the first meeting. Something didn’t sit right. They were abrasive, short and frankly, clearly not that bothered about anything ‘new’.
In hindsight, I knew that they might be difficult. But I figured that if they followed my process and I stuck to my guns, we’d be fine. Besides their budget was pretty modest. How tough could it get?
If something doesn’t feel right, seriously contemplate whether you want to work with them. The money might be tempting but is it worth all the hassle afterwards?
8. Don’t respond to anything immediately
Particularly if it’s inflammatory. A couple of times I could have come very close to writing some very aggressive responses, but my ego had to take a back seat and I had to let it pass.
It’s very tempting to write back immediately and make your point heard. Maybe get angry, clever and saying things that will get a response back. Or to shut them up. You want to feel heard and acknowledged, that something is being done.
It feels totally unfair when things get out of hand, but overall, NEVER EVER respond or write an email back when you’re angry. If someone doesn’t like you, they’ll still not like you in a couple of days.
Calm down, sleep on it, and then calmly respond. Or even just totally ignore it.
We’ve even got a few of the emails and letter here if you want to take a look.
This first one was the email [business] sent us when we asked them what they thought of the designs. We later proved in court that we were weeks ahead of schedule and that the magic of emails meant we could track when they had opened them. Also, they were technically asking for a refund, not asking to pay us for work done so far.
After a bit of back and forth we eventually received this letter. Which although looked like a pretty threatening letter, until my solicitor pointed out that it really didn’t make any sense.
Again, I never emailed back immediately. I either waited or let my lawyer deal with it. We responded with this email. Hoping for that to be the end of it.
Almost immediately, I received this final email from [business]. They were clearly very angry and decided to respond to their emotions. I particularly like the sentence “I advise you to take legal advice ” when in fact my solicitor had been writing all the emails and letter for a while now. They turned up to court unrepresented. Maybe they should have sought legal advice?
9. UK court is nothing like TV
Finally, court is nothing like TV. Shows make it out to be full of clever questions, charismatic Judges and with some kind of structure.
In truth, the Judge makes the rules (obviously) and ours decided to cut straight to the chase. Much of our evidence was dismissed instantly (from both parties) because it was felt to be irrelevant to the particular point we were trying to raise.
Thankfully though, I had good insurance and a GREAT barrister. Also, my solicitor whom worked with me right up to the court date was a hero. So big thanks to them.
In conclusion, it’s better to spend a little now to make yourself safe, than deal with all the hassle and costs later.
For those curious and those who keep asking. We have got a counter claim potentially in the works. But its very expensive, and frankly I have no interest in trying to ruin someone else’s business at my expense just because I feel I can. I’d much rather continue to develop hard working relationships with my valuable customers and get let [business] drive itself into the ground.
Edit* We decided to not follow through with any legal counter claim. Instead, we split the money we would have used on a counter claim and gave it to our employees as a bonus. Which was a nice idea that came through from my Imgur family. (When we got to the front page)