It was a beautiful spring day as I sat outside a riverside pub catching up with a friend. While she went in to check progress on our food order, I ran my eye idly down my emails. One stuck out and it is no exaggeration to say it ruined that day in June and continued to hang a menacing cloud over most of the rest of last year: “County court judgment entered against Ms Elizabeth Faye Lightfoot – claim F6QZ45Y1” It was in the sum of £637.19 for non-payment of invoices for plumbing work I had challenged some 20 months before.
The problem began in November 2017 when I used Aspect, which describes itself as “one of London’s largest team of property maintenance experts”, to find and repair a leak from the bathroom in my flat to the flat below.
The company rang me back to check the credit card details and emailed the job details “Please attend site to investigate a bath leak” saying it was chargeable at the plumber’s rates of £114 an hour.
I was presented with an invoice for £462.24 made up of four hours’ work at the then plumber’s rate of £114 an hour, plus £51.84 for materials. It said he had resealed the bath and a vanity basin. He claimed to have identified faulty sealant as the cause of the leak.
The flat is not where I live, it’s one I own and have tenanted out. But having resealed the bath myself I didn’t believe it could have taken four hours and my tenants confirmed that the plumber had been at the flat for only 2.5 hours. The company later admitted that was the case, saying he was away for 1 hour, 25 minutes as he had no sealant in his van. However, it continued to charge for four hours.
I was still arguing over the bill when in January 2018 the tenant in the flat below returned from her Christmas break to find the ceiling still wet.
I asked Aspect to send a manager to assess the work but they sent the same man who had done it. He stood looking at the leaking pipe and told me he couldn’t mend it because he didn’t “do pipework”.
I then discovered that, though their order for the job stated they were sending a plumber, they had sent a handyman to “identify a leak” and charged me at their plumber’s rates of £114 an hour instead of the handyman rate of £68 an hour. Aspect said the company decides who is the right person for the job. Just because I asked for and paid for a plumber it didn’t mean they had to send one.
The pipe was repaired two days’ later by another Aspect employee who told me he did not think I would have to pay for the first visit. I sent an email that night saying: “Rest assured that I will settle the bill as soon as it is sorted out but I ask you to take a hard look at the first bill for £462.”
But the company did not send me any invoice for the second visit or demand payment for the first for 13 months until February 2019 when they sent an email hoping I was well – and telling me I owed them £991.74 – being the contested invoice for November 2017, plus first sight of the £529.50 bill for the plumber’s visit in 2018.
In March this year they threatened by email to take me to the small claims court for the £991.74 owing and issued by email a notice before action. I refused to pay and said bring it on.
I waited for them to send a notice of the court date but received nothing by email or post.
My mistake was to think that I would know when it lodged a claim because a notice of action would be served on me. Instead, the company, Aspect Maintenance Services Ltd, applied electronically to the County Court Business Centre and gave my flat address, not my home address.
The notice arrived in a plain envelope not requiring a signature and the tenants added it to the pile of junk mail, leaving me in happy ignorance.
So it was only in June that I found out that I had a CCJ against me. As soon as I realised, I rang the court and was told that I could apply for the judgment to be set aside for a fee of £255, which I did at once.
In August I won the set-aside hearing. The judge told the Aspect representative: “When a company like yours has one address but you are also clearly communicating by email with someone, then I think it is a very dangerous practice to then rely on a postal address. I think you have to do both.”
The judge asked me if I agreed that I owed anything and I agreed to pay the second invoice for the plumber that mended the leak but refused to pay the first one.
The company said it wanted a full hearing to pursue the first invoice. I remained defiant, and planned to claim the £255 cost of the hearing from Aspect and also loss of earnings for two visits to the flat and two court hearings.
At Staines county court on 5 November last year my case was listed on the board for court five but no one could find it. It turned out that Aspect had notified the court that it was withdrawing the claim but too late for the listings office. And they didn’t tell me.
It meant I was no longer liable for the first invoice – but I could not claim back the £255 court fee or expenses. The usher arranged a meeting with the judge who said I should have asked for the fee at the set-aside hearing. But she ordered the company to pay me the maximum £95 loss of earnings for that day and I walked out a victor, of sorts. Had I engaged a solicitor I might have got costs awarded but, on the other hand, I could have been facing a much larger bill. At least it was over.
The Guardian sent a number of questions to Aspect. We asked if it can really take four hours to apply sealant to a bath? It said: “The booking was made to investigate a leak in a bathroom and not specifically to reseal around a bath. The four hours would have included the tradesman’s investigation work – for him to diagnose what he felt could be the cause of the leak. As well as resealing the bath and vanity unit, he also fixed a tap.”
We’re confident we scheduled a tradesperson who had the skills needed to carry out the work requested to a high standard
But it said that Ms Lightfoot had been incorrectly charged for the time. “The tradesman was in the property for a total of two hours, 38 mins, so the customer should have been charged £95.00 x three hours = £285, plus the £50.00, less a 10% discount that was offered at the time of booking, which totals £301.50. We are extremely sorry for this error.”
We asked why it sent a handyman, not a plumber. Aspect said: “The tradesman who was sent was a multi-trade engineer who has plumbing skills … he has attended a total of 344 plumbing-related jobs during his time working with Aspect. None of these resulted in a call back or complaint. On this occasion, we are confident we scheduled a tradesperson who had the skills needed to carry out the work requested to a high standard.
Why did Aspect send the court notice to the flat address, not to Ms Lightfoot directly? Aspect said: “When we move to legal proceedings we check the ownership of the property using the Land Registry website. We follow this process so we’re able to confirm ownership before court hearings are scheduled. We didn’t have another address listed for Ms Lightfoot.”