As freelancers, we often work on trust – we agree a cost, we do the work and we trust that we’ll be paid for that work. Thankfully, in my experience it’s always worked out like that, but last year I worked on one job that was the exception to the rule – the client refused to pay. So what did I do, what did I learn and what would my advice be?

The story, in brief, is that a significant piece of work was agreed over email as a second job for an existing client. We filmed over three days, the editing style was approved, the editing completed, the invoice sent and then… nothing. During the editing process the client had delayed paying the deposit invoice and had been difficult to get hold of by ignoring almost all of my emails and calls. Needless to say alarm bells were ringing. A few days after the invoice was due I contacted the client again and got no response. I tried all channels of contact, always politely, always formally, but still no response. On the rare occasions I did get through, it would be fair to say my politeness was not returned.

So what did I do?

However much it pained me to do so, I gave the client the benefit of the doubt and gave them every opportunity to resolve the situation. After another month of repeatedly trying to get in touch I realised I was at a dead end. Had the client answered my calls, explained the situation and offered a solution, I would have been happy to wait another month or two, but the clear avoidance of dealing with the problem and their line ‘my client hasn’t paid me so I can’t pay you’ left me no choice but to take legal action. Bear in mind that while all this is happening, the client’s social media channels are business as usual, full with new projects – so something’s not right here.

In the UK, Money Claim Online (www.moneyclaim.gov.uk), more commonly known as the small claims court, is where to go. While the website can be a little temperamental, the process is simple enough: you submit a claim online which is sent out by the courts to the defendant. They respond, and assuming they admit liability, a schedule of payment is agreed. There is a fee of £70 for the service which is added onto the claim so as long as you are successful, it doesn’t cost you anything.

It worked for me. The client paid.

I’ve learnt from this experience, and here’s my advice:

  • Have a simple set of terms and conditions that are agreed to before the work begins.
  • For large jobs, get a deposit paid before you begin – at least then you can walk away if the project breaks down.
  • If it goes awry, be patient.
  • Don’t publicise the situation and absolutely don’t vent on social media. Nothing good will come of that.
  • Be patient.
  • If you feel you’ve done all you can, and you see no sign of a resolution, offer one more chance and give a clear deadline after which legal steps will be taken.
  • If it’s still not resolved come the deadline, go to Money Claim Online. In your claim, state the facts and just the facts.
  • Be patient and let the process run its course. Anecdotally, it seems that an official court letter is often enough to kickstart a solution, and there are websites that offer just that service.

I can’t offer any advice on what to do if your client disputes the claim as I didn’t have to go through that. I would certainly only go to the courts if you were absolutely sure you were in the right.

We filmed at the start of April and I got paid at the end of November – eight months is a long time in a freelancer’s bank account. I’ll do everything I can to avoid that happening again.

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