My Small Claims Experience
Judge seemed partial to a Surveyor
When the Surveyor who did a Full Building Survey on the
house I was thinking of buying failed to spot an abundance of woodworm and some
damp, I complained, expecting him to apologise and offer some kind of modest
But instead of fessing up, he trotted out a litany of
reasons for not seeing the defects.
These were mostly attempts to divert attention from his
failings. Here are a couple of examples:
He claimed, falsely, that I “did not obtain the prepurchase
Estimates and Reports which were a requirement of the [Survey] Report.”
He said, wrongly, that I “chose to ignore the advice of my
report including advice to renegotiate and chose to purchase [the house] above
Me, a house buyer, the plaintiff
Peter Walker of Walker Jones Ltd – ‘the Surveyor’, the
District Judge Fay Ellen Wright – ‘the Judge’
One area of woodworm infestation was in the dining room
floorboards and joists, the underside of which could be viewed from the cellar.
One of the joists was immediately above the cellar door.
This door was low, about 4ft high, so an inspector would have to crouch down
and look up. No tradesmen working in the cellar have ever complained about the
low headroom. They accept it as part of the job.
There was nothing obstructing the doorway; it was an outside
door, so could be inspected in daylight.
I figured that a surveyor with his wits about him, one who
knew from experience where to look, would have grasped this easy opportunity to
inspect the floorboards.
Unfortunately, my Surveyor was not so smart: he failed to
spot the woodworm in the joists.
In early exchanges, the nearest he came to dealing with my
complaint was this statement related by the Property Ombudsman:
“Walker Jones states that while this area was inspected, it
was full of stored items, in need of cleaning and the light did not work. It
therefore may not have been possible to identify any sign of woodworm.”
There was also a damp area on a bedroom chimney breast – a
classic place for damp patches. An alert surveyor would have homed in on the
chimney breast, which was clear of any obstructions, such as cupboards, and easy to see in
The Property Ombudsman had this to say on the subject: "…we would not expect the inside of the cupboard to be inspected.
Consequently, we consider it unlikely that the inspecting surveyor would have located the damp at the time of
inspection and it follows that we do not propose to take any further action in respect of this issue."
For the first stage of my complaint, the Surveyor
He did not directly address either of the problems I’d
uncovered and concluded that he’d done nothing wrong.
The second step was a complaint to Ombudsman Services -
This organisation is funded by the property industry.
The Ombudsman did not directly address either of the
problems I’d complained about and concluded that the Surveyor had done nothing
The third stage was to sue in the Small Claims court.
I thought that for a relatively modest cost (£140) I might
get an interesting experience. And so it proved.
Although I had a strong case, I knew I only had a 50:50
chance of success.
This was because there was a chance I might be caught out by
legal loopholes I knew nothing about.
In addition, a knowledgeable friend advised that judges
generally side with their fellow professionals.
And so it proved.
Small Claims track
as it’s called, is fairly straightforward – you file a claim online, giving an outline of
After 6 to 8 weeks, when you’ve been allocated to a
particular court, communications take place by post.
You are given a date for the hearing and a deadline to
submit your detailed evidence in the form of a Witness Statement .
In my case, however, the Surveyor asked for the case to be
struck out and, failing that, sought permission to employ a barrister, at a
cost, he claimed, of £750. He did not say that legal assistance would have
been provided by his professional indemnity insurance.
Professional witnesses and advocates are not encouraged by
Small Claims courts, so the Judge ordered a preliminary hearing to examine his
Since the court was unaware of the details of my case, I
voluntarily sent it my Witness Statement.
Having read it, the Judge must have thought there was a case
to answer, so refused the Surveyor’s requests and cancelled the preliminary
The Surveyor sent in his own Witness Statement at the last
possible moment before the deadline. This meant I was unable to respond by
adding to my own Statement.
Surveyor’s Witness Statement
Much of it comprised attempts to divert the Judge’s
attention from the woodworm and damp issues by impressing her with words such
as ‘respected’, ‘professional’,
‘specialist’, ‘expert’, 'recognised, and ‘prominent’, all intended, no doubt, to emphasise the superior
quality of his own and associated trades.
He began by trying to persuade the Judge that he, Mr Reasonable,
was the subject of a vexatious claim from a client who was trying it
“As an active Christian I have...been anxious to look
compassionately at the case.”
There was a detailed CV:
“My name is Peter Alan Walker. I am a Fellow (FRICS) of the
RICS. I qualified as a Chartered Surveyor in 1980 having trained with the
District Valuer and Valuation Officer (Inland Revenue) from 1974, then moving
to Local Government … and subsequently into Private Practice. I also hold a
Teachers Certificate in Mathematics and Education.”
He emphasised his experience:
“I have experience over 43 years in the inspection,
surveying and valuation of properties similar to the subject of this Report.
Over that period of time I have been employed by Central and
Local Government and as a Senior Chartered Surveyor by prominent Regional Firms
of Surveyors and Valuers.”
He concluded by saying he was based in York, about 45 miles
from the property he inspected.
The hearing began badly. At the appointed time, an usher
came over and said the Judge was just having a cuppa because she was running
It was a lengthy brew – an hour later we were escorted to
her office and sat before her at a table with space for 6 (at a squeeze).
It would have been tricky if members of the public had
wanted to attend.
The Judge did not trouble to introduce herself and I only
learned that her name was Fay Ellen Wright by calling the court afterwards.
It’s my experience that professionals who don’t introduce
themselves are less likely to respect their clients. And so it proved.
Judge Fay Wright spoke slowly and carefully, making it clear
that she was going to be meticulous in applying the rules, a stickler for the
She declared that she had read our Witness Statements, so
there was no need to repeat them.
As the plaintiff, I went first, giving a point-by-point
refutation of the Surveyor’s evidence in his Witness Statement.
Wanting to show that his evidence was inaccurate, I began by
questioning his assertion that there was no electricity at the house on the day
of the survey.
I’d phoned the power supply company and been told there were
no power cuts that day. I’d then spoken to the vendor, who told me she had
never ever turned the power off.
As the lack of electric power wasn’t a big issue (both
defects were visible in daylight), I hadn’t thought to include it in my own
But before I could relate this evidence, Judge Fay Wright
interrupted, declaring that it was not in my Witness Statement and so could not
She also said that even if it had been presented earlier,
she could not attach any weight to it unless the people who’d uttered it came
to court as witnesses to be cross-examined to check their credibility.
Next I tried to challenge the Surveyor’s claim that the
doorway to the cellar was so blocked by garden tools that he couldn’t do a full
I’d prepared a sketch of the doorway and the short passage
beyond, thinking it would help the Judge understand the layout of the cellar.
But she refused to look at it, saying it was new evidence.
One of the Surveyor’s irrelevant criticisms was that I’d rejected
his advice to get a survey done by a specialist woodworm contractor such as
After remarking that Rentokil had once tried to defraud me,
I said I 'd written to the Ombudsman to ask if I really needed to book such a
survey. The surprising answer was that a survey would not be necessary.
But before I'd finished the Judge intervened,
once again saying this was new evidence that couldn’t be used.
Looking across the table at the Surveyor, I could sense his
inner smirk widening.
It must have widened further when Judge Fay Wright allowed
him to get away with doing exactly the same thing – giving evidence that had
not previously been presented to the court.
When it came to the defendant’s turn to speak, the Surveyor
claimed that I had discovered the damp and woodworm only when I undertook
“invasive investigations” and “renovations”, adding in a patronising tone, “as
is often the case.”
Where had he got this information? By chatting to a neighbour, perhaps? From a spy camera he’d planted in the house?
He didn’t say.
Judge Fay Wright didn’t ask.
He went on to claim that I had only found another area of
woodworm in the garage when I'd “excavated” a beam above the door from inside
This was pure invention; it was not in his Witness Statement
and it was unsubstantiated.
The claim that the woodworm was found inside the
garage suited him nicely – he had not been given the key to the garage, so had
a ready-made excuse for not seeing any woodworm there.
But I had actually discovered the woodworm by tapping a nail into the
beam from the outside. It sounded hollow. This was because the worms had eaten every last bit of solid oak .
Outraged at the lie, I interrupted the Surveyor and was
(rightly) admonished by the Judge.
But Judge Fay Wright did not admonish the Surveyor for presenting new evidence.
She made no attempt to be even-handed - her stricture about not using evidence unless it had previously
been presented to the court was not applied to the Surveyor.
Nor did she suggest that whoever had told him about my "invasive renovations" should have come to court to
be cross-examined to check their credibility.
I was allowed to cross-examine the Surveyor.
I was still interested in the matter of the lack of
electricity at the house and approached the question obliquely.
I asked if he’d used the code given him by the estate agent
to disarm the burglar alarm.
The Surveyor couldn’t remember whether or not he’d used the
I pointed out that the burglar alarm would have sounded off
if it were not disarmed, even if there was no mains electric power.
I added that the vendor had told me she had never left the burglar alarm disarmed.
The Judge bristled. But the Surveyor had made the first
mention of the burglar alarm in his own Witness Statement, so I was entitled
bring it up. I realised that upsetting the Judge wouldn’t help my case but by
this time I knew it was a lost cause.
I moved on to the critical question of why the Surveyor had
not seen the woodworm in the joist directly above the cellar door.
He had consistently claimed that the doorway and the passage
beyond had been blocked with garden tools. I didn’t believe it because I’d
viewed the cellar only a few days earlier and had been able to move around
freely. The house was unoccupied so there were unlikely to have been any
changes since then.
He’d already admitted that he’d managed to get a few feet
into the cellar.
So I asked him why he was claiming that a blocked door had
prevented him from seeing the woodworm.
He surprised me: “I’ve not said the door was blocked.”
Judge Fay Wright jumped in sharply to support him,
demanding: “Where does he say the door was blocked?”
I said he used the term “access point”, which I took
to mean door.
The Judge said firmly that “access point” did not mean door.
The Surveyor added it meant that once you get into the area you can't get any further.
If I’d thought on my feet, I would have retorted, “A point is a point.
If you meant ‘area’, why not say ‘access area’?”
I wondered at the Judge’s unhesitating intervention. It
seemed as though she had researched the definition of “access point” beforehand.
It also felt like the pair of them were colluding in arguing semantics.
I did my own research afterwards and concluded that Judge
Fay Wright was wrong – in British English usage, “access point” does mean door
Despite feeling a bit shaken by this exchange, there was a
glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, or should I say cellar.
The Surveyor had just confirmed that the doorway was free of obstructions.
He couldn't have had an excuse for not seeing the woodworm since the worst of it was in a joist immediately above the doorway.
I asked him, “Why didn’t you just look up [at the joist]?”
His answer told me what I’d already guessed – that he’d
missed the woodworm because he was busy trying to get into the cellar,
concentrating on other things, missing the obvious:
“If you’re crouching to go in and you’re looking round…it’s
very restrictive access…I really can’t help you any more.”
For a professional man employed to do a job, it sounded very
much like an admission of negligence.
But Judge Fay Wright sympathised and helped him out with
an excuse for not spotting the woodworm, one that not even the Surveyor
himself had thought of.
In her summing up, the Judge declared that using a head
torch in an area of restricted height would have limited his ability to see the
She did not say how a head torch would have limited his inspection.
All the Surveyor ever said about a head torch was that he'd used one.
He did not say where he'd used it or that it could limit his ability to see things in areas of low headroom.
What, I wondered, was going on?
Are judges are entitled to come up with speculative notions
that bolster the case of one of the parties?
And if it was not speculative, what was Judge Fay Wright’s
source for her illuminating construct?
Continuing with her summing up, the Judge dealt with the
During the hearing, the Surveyor hadn’t come up with any
credible reasons for not reporting the damp patch in the bedroom.
All he had mentioned in his Report was a possible problem
with soot on the outside of the nearby chimney .
So, he'd reported blackness, but not dampness.
To his rescue rode the redoubtable Judge Fay Ellen Wright.
She declared that the Surveyor could not be expected to find
a damp patch in the bedroom because the chimney inspection was carried out from
the ground (with binoculars, presumably).
Now it is perfectly reasonable to connect a damp chimney
breast with the nearby chimney stack.
But the Surveyor never said that he had viewed the latter
from the ground.
He said he had brought a ladder so might well have inspected
this particular stack at close quarters (it is, in fact, the easiest part of the roof to reach by ladder).
But he did not say so or refer to it in any of the documents he presented to the court.
So, with her chimney fantasy, Judge Fay Wright had handed
the Surveyor a clean sweep.
After a hearing lasting an hour and a quarter, she declared
that there was no departure from the accepted standard of a competent surveyor
and dismissed my suit.
She then looked towards the Surveyor and asked if he wanted
to apply for costs.
He could only have asked for his travel expenses and loss of
earnings, the latter being limited to £90 for the day.
However, he must have remembered he was an 'active Christian',
for he said he was happy to be magnanimous and did not want to apply for costs.
I did consider appealing Judge Fay Ellen Wright’s skewed
verdict (it costs just £150) but thought Hell might freeze over before a judge
would criticise a fellow judge.
1 This particular Small Claims court was not consumer friendly.
It was more like the Old Bailey than Judge Rinder.
There were times when I wished I'd had a solicitor or a MacKenzie's Friend to hand.
2 Do not be tempted to compile a concise Witness Statement that
will relieve the judge of having to trawl through reams of stuff, in the hope
that he or she will look favourably upon you.
every single piece of documentation so that the judge can never accuse you of
introducing new evidence.
4 If you want to
sue a professional organisation for giving poor service, don’t bother. Too much
rests on the judge’s opinions, biases and prejudices.
5 The Small
Claims court is really only effective for cut-and-dried cases such as when
you’re owed money and have documentary proof of the debt.
6 If you need a
building survey, hire a builder or a similar tradesman with real experience of
7 This advice applies to England.
If you live in Scotland, it is obligatory for house sellers to employ a surveyor to do a Home Report.
I have used six or seven surveyors in Scotland and have always found them to be straightforward,
competent and thorough.
in bold are mine)
 This is a statement of
your claim, cross-referenced to emails, photographs, receipts and any other
evidence. It has to be completed to a fairly precise format laid down by the
court. All your evidence must be included because you can’t use anything at the
hearing unless it’s in your Witness Statement.
 The woodworm in the garage was not part of my claim because Walker Jones's
Terms and Conditions excluded outbuildings from the survey.
 Although the term
‘access point’ is not a recognised compound noun and is rarely found in British
English dictionaries, it is sometimes used by the UK property industry, when it
refers to a doorway, ie a place where you would find a door or perhaps a gate, manhole cover or hatch.
These examples come via Google:
- in estate agent’s
brochures: “There is coving to ceiling and a doorway leading to the side
hall which provides useful access point from the front elevation.”
- on architect’s drawings:
Broxtowe Borough Planning Dept keeps a plan with the notation ‘access
point/doorway’ accompanied by an arrow indicating a door.
- by builders: “Back to
project manager, Paul, he’s happy it’s plaster and instructs the builder to cut
an access point in the corridor where he wants the doorway.”
- in survey reports:
I asked the RICS about the
term. Its librarian, Annette Howard, wrote, “I confirm that the term is used in
our Homebuyer Report both with and without a valuation but there is no RICS
definition of the term. I have not been able to find a definition of the
term in any general legal dictionaries which we have access to.”
Despite this lack of
definition, the RICS, in its Guidance to surveyors, makes it clear that ‘access
point’ refers to a hatch (or anything similar, such as a door):
“Subfloor areas are
inspected only to the extent visible from a readily accessible and unfixed hatch
by way of an inverted ‘head and Shoulder’ inspection at the access point.”
The OED is one of the few
dictionaries to mention the term, but as an example only; one of its
definitions of ‘Access’ is given as: “With the sense ‘that provides a means of
entry; designating an opening or entrance’, as access hatch, access point,
 The Surveyor also reported twigs from a crow's nest in the chimney pot.
But the photos he took actually show a metal cowl atop the pot. It appears to be fixed to the pot by several spindly rods, which to the
untutored eye might look like twigs.
The opinions in this blog are, to the best
of my belief, fully supported by the evidence that was presented to the court.
This blog was compiled both from
memory and contemporaneous notes.
Statements in quotation
marks are not necessarily word-for-word but closely reflect what was said at