Just Rewards - The Diary Of A Dispute

FEBRUARY 1994: Only a few weeks into my new "permanent" job with a local authority computer training agency and already something's wrong. Rumour has it that the firm's on the shake. The local Training and Enterprise Council won't fund our courses for unemployed youngsters and adults during the next financial year - it seems they're not impressed with the agency's "positive outcome" (i.e. jobs) rate for the current year. Fat chance I've had to do anything about it. I've been brought in to market the agency's students for jobs and work-experience placements, having successfully done this for a private sector training company.

MARCH 1994: We're closing at month-end. The dyed-in-the-wool local authority types are painting banners and planning protest marches. We few commercially aware people are polishing our CVs and going through our contacts. How about Newdeal (a pseudonym) - a small IBM mid-range software house where I've placed students from both training agencies? I've been dealing with them for over a year and they seem a nice bunch. Arrange a meeting with their MD. They can use an extra support analyst cum technical author on contract for a couple of days per week. The rate's a joke but it'll do until something better turns up.

APRIL 1994: Start work in the middle of the month. I'm updating on-screen help-text for accounting systems - nothing particularly brain-taxing but the existing stuff's no great shakes, so it's not hard to shine.

MAY 1994: The MD must be impressed because he's asked me to start full-time working. He wants me to write user-training manuals and create a standard test-data set. Get into the system and find out what really happens, he says, then write the manuals accordingly. Doing this reveals inconsistencies, program bugs and other problems. Some menu choices lead nowhere. Report findings to programmers - they say the system's never been properly tested.

SEPTEMBER 1994: The rate may be rubbish but the payment's prompt - my first four invoices have produced cheques within days! A new prospect's on the horizon - a well-paid technical author contract with an American financial company. Tell Newdeal's MD - he asks can I do any work for them alongside the new assignment? Probably not - it'll be working away from home. MD wishes me luck with the interview. Take a short pre-arranged holiday. The Newdeal work's at a convenient break-point and I don't want to start anything I can't finish. Write to MD explaining the situation, thanking him for the work and submit final invoice.

OCTOBER 1994: No cheque yet but never mind - I'm off the premises now and out-of-sight's often out-of-mind. Send statement of account - no response. Write friendly letter to Newdeal's MD, reminding him that the account's unpaid - still no response.

NOVEMBER 1994: It seems as though they're avoiding payment, but what to do? In nearly twenty years of contracting proper I never had a bad debt. Send final reminder and statement, warning that legal action will be taken unless the account is settled in 7 days. A reply at last - they won't be paying - MD claims the work was not satisfactory. INTO ACTION - Citizens' Advice Bureau sends leaflets about debt-recovery via the small claims procedure at the County Court. Solicitors' costs are not usually recoverable under the small claims procedure so enlist the help of friend Paul. He's got a law degree but doesn't practise. Paul says that Newdeal has breached the contract by refusing to pay the invoice. Issue a County Court Summons. Newdeal counterclaims for nearly twice the value of the unpaid invoice. This seeks to recover the cost of over a month's work that they've already paid for so promptly and bears out the old saying that the best form of defence is attack.

DECEMBER 1994: A preliminary arbitration hearing is set for February (!) but is subsequently vacated in favour of a full arbitration hearing, set for mid-March. The wheels of justice grind exceedingly slowly.

MARCH 1995: Prepare for the hearing. I could conduct the case myself but, in view of my Scorpio temper, it's probably better done by someone who's not directly involved. Would you believe it? The hearing's set for a Thursday and that's one of the days that Paul teaches law students. Enter Les King. That's the one - veteran programmer, recruitment consultant and bon-viveur, now adding public-speaking to his many talents. Yes, he'd be delighted to help an old friend and colleague.

THE HEARING: Newdeal (whom we now refer to as the defendant) wants to offer a settlement - which turns out to be nothing more than "we'll drop the counterclaim if you drop the claim." Big deal, having come this far! Offer politely refused. Hearing commences - Les sets out our case. Newdeal counters with a scruffy sheaf of papers which turns out to be an early draft of one of the training manuals. The pencil correction of typing mistakes is offered as evidence of my incompetence. A computer agency's reference request with the addressee's name wrongly spelt is presented likewise. Finally a statement signed by two of my Newdeal ex-colleagues, rubbishing my work, is produced. I don't blame them for signing it - people will do almost anything to keep their jobs nowadays. Besides, one of them is 63 and unlikely to make waves at this point of his career. Both sides have presented their evidence. The judge now explains the law affecting the dispute and makes his award.

JUDGEMENT: On 16 March 1995 at Barnet County Court, District Judge Trent gave judgement against Newdeal Computer Services Limited of Enfield, Middlesex for the full invoice amount plus the court fee and 20 travelling expenses. He also awarded us compensation for a day's loss of earnings but, being magnanimous in victory, we waived this. Five days later a cheque was received, 40 pence short of the court's award. Perhaps they'll put it towards the cost of buying a calculator!

© Brian Smith 1995, 2001

Author's Note: Newdeal is an anagram of the defendant's real name, the identity of which was changed at the request of the company's new owners.

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