Justice Mary Carroll had the attention of the whole room. "How long can hair extensions be left in?" she asked. Something in her tone suggested she wasn't of a mind to getting them in herself. A decision had to be made on whether or not the young woman before her had a genuine case against the hair salon for the offending extensions. They had to be removed after only 11 days, and the claimant wanted her money back.
Then there were decisions to be made over the felling of an over-hanging tree, a sofa with wonky arms, an academic course that wasn't, and a wedding dress with water stains down the front.
Welcome to the Small Claims Court. Claims are for up to €2,000, there are no solicitors, no wigs, no handcuffs – just an order for the offender to pay up. Or so the theory goes. Hearings in the capital take place on the third Monday of every month, but before small claims could be dealt with when the Sunday Tribune sat in last week, the serious business of the district court was attended to first.
Before the judge was young man who had stolen a wallet from a garda, impersonated said garda, and subsequently failed to appear on two previous occasions to be charged. As the room later discovered, the judge took a very dim view of those summoned to appear, but who failed to grace the court with their presence.
Similarly, in the case of a woman in six months' rent arrears to Dublin City Council, the judge let it be known in no uncertain terms that she has "never liked the idea of a court acting as a debt collector". People shifted uneasily on the hard wooden benches.
Justice was in air for 79-year-old Peader Tunney. His sorry story had a horribly familiar ring to it. It involved that service which makes many householders wince, namely broadband, phone and cable supply. Anyone who has lost the will to live trying to get through to what is ironically known as 'customer care' would have sympathised – as did Justice Carroll.
When Tunney related his evidence in front of the judge, he became emotional, describing how vulnerable he felt when friends and family couldn't reach him on the phone because at one stage he had been given a new number.
The courtroom responded with a round of applause when Justice Carroll awarded him €1,019, adding: "I know this has caused you a lot of distress."
Putting a price on distress was an issue in a similar claim by an elderly gentleman against Sky Subscriber Services. Like many householders, he was delighted back in 2007 when he first got the offer of six months' cable connection for €66. He phoned the company to take them up on it. "But I never got to watch the match I wanted it for, and heard the next day that Manchester United had won as well," he said, to loud chuckles. Instead of cable, he just got reams of red tape.
But it was when his evidence revealed the man had been threatened with debt collectors that the judge adopted a sharper tone. She voiced the exasperation of us all when stating that companies spend "a fortune on marketing, but not on appointing someone to deal directly with customer's problems".
It was a point of principle, she agreed, in the case of the claimant, even though the company had offered compensation previously. The matter was finally settled with a decree of €660 awarded in the man's favour.
There was a happy outcome too for the woman who had bought a sofa with faulty arms – she was awarded a full refund of €2,000 against the supplier.
When Eddie Gibbons and Brian Bennett's case was called, the court lived up to its claim for straightforward, speedy justice. It was over the building of a wall, which, as it turned out, wasn't. "Are you both sitting beside each other?" asked the judge, somewhat incredulously, as laughter erupted around the room.
"Yes" said Bennett, admitting he hadn't fulfilled the agreement to build the wall, but "I have the money in my pocket to repay him now". The judge was more than happy to strike it out.
She also struck out the next case, against Lidl Ireland, when it appeared the claimant hadn't bothered to appear. There was an audible "thank goodness," from the young woman sent along to represent the
There was a sigh of relief too from Karolina Gusek, who had paid €1,400 in fees for an academic course in Dublin with IPT Educational Courses, which was advertised in several Polish publications here.
Gusek later discovered that the qualification was not accredited and that the company had set up similar courses in other major cities.
Justice Carroll awarded her the full decree of €1,400.
People come to the Small Claims Court seeking compensation and some become emotional when telling their stories to the court. There was sympathy for bride-to-be Emma O'Connor, who discovered "water stains" down the front of the gown she collected from the bridal boutique – just one week before her wedding.
There were lengthy submissions of evidence from O'Connor and a representative from Cosmopolitan Brides, who said it had guaranteed to have the dress cleaned and delivered in time for the big day.
Not reassured by the company's promise, O'Connor bought a dress elsewhere. The judge sympathised, saying she was aware it "was an emotional time, and I can understand your panic, but I do feel the respondents made an effort, although there was a lot of difficulty making contact with them".
She had to consider the two parties, she said. "I will make an award, but not for the full amount of the claim" she said, kindly but firmly, like a milder version of Judge Judy. A visibly upset O'Connor left the room, saying the €700 decree "wouldn't even cover her costs".
Having already cautioned that each claim would be given no more than 15 minutes, it was obvious when the case against the hair salon came up that it wasn't the length of hair extensions causing a sharper tone in the judge's voice, but the time it was taking to resolve the matter.
Deirdre Moore, who felt her appearance in an advertisement would be enhanced by having Cheryl Cole-like hair extensions, said her hair "was in bits" after she had them removed.
The impressively coiffed co-owner of Cowboys and Angels said the salon had 20 years' experience in creating hair extensions and on any occasion that someone didn't like the result, they removed them and refunded the customer.
Justice Carroll said she "could only decide on what I see before me" and awarded €950 to Moore.
This ruling was challenged by the salon, which asked that the award be given to the company making the advertisement, which had actually paid for the extensions.
The clock was rapidly ticking towards 4pm when the matter of the overhanging tree was attended to.
"I couldn't work out what the problem was here," said Justice Carroll. That didn't auger well for Billie Traynor, whose newly seeded and hard landscaped garden was on the receiving end of a felled 30ft eucalyptus from a neighbour's garden.
"You had a dispute over that tree," said the judge sharply. "How did you expect it to be done without making a mess?"
Although she wanted the tree removed, it was felled during her absence and cut up in her garden before removal, said Traynor. Despite photographs of the damage and her gravel and seed replacement costs, an award of just €100 was made for "cleaning up."
Speaking to the Sunday Tribune in the foyer afterwards, Traynor was philosophical, agreeing that the earlier District Court proceedings put a lot of the subsequent small claims hearings into perspective. We spoke about the evidence against the young man who had stolen from a garda. He had been in care since he was six months' old, was now a father himself and on methadone. He was sentenced to five months' imprisonment and led away. That sombre verdict made the rest of the day's business seem small indeed...