I wonder if anyone has experience and can help with some advise.

I am a programmer with 15 years of experience, and I feel it is unfair what is happening to me.

I was silly enough to sign a contract for an e-commerce project with a budget of 1500 GBP to be completed in two months. I just wanted to see if freelancing is worth a while. Now I deeply regret it.

I was paid 500 GBP in advance. Then another 500 GBP after a month as client was happy with the progress. Then because of the client constant changes with the project I missed the two month deadline even if I was working full time on it. The Project is about 80% finished. The client refused to pay the remaining 500 GBP and have raised his demands that I have to complete the project or give all the money back.

To cut the story short, the client is now threatening taking this to a UK county court or small claims court unless 1. I pay the whole 1000 GBP money back or 2. he will pay additional 200 GBP, and I will complete the project in another month.

None of those options are attractive to me. I did all my best with the project, but I can't predict how long it will take to complete with the client changing his mind every time.

Would I be able to avoid going to court or losing it if I send all the project source and binary code up to second payment (one month of work) or even all the code I have developed for the two months so he cannot claim he has nothing in return for his money.

I was trying to get him to agree to this option and terminate the project so he could continue with another developer. He agreed to sign first then changed his mind. I am thinking to send project anyway without signing if that helps to avoid court defeat.

I am the second developer who has problems with his project. He says he had his money back with the first one, and he feels pretty strong he will beat me as well.

I don't have experience with the legal matters though, so I don't know how strong his case is.

What should I do?

  • One suggestion, when just starting out, is to pursue jobs that are on a time & materials contract. This puts more of the risk and project management responsibility onto the client. Now when they say "We'd like to add features A, B and C", you can say, "Okay, I estimate that will require X additional hours" and the client can decide how they want to allocate their budget. If you do take on fixed bids, the lesson is: budget for your own project management time to keep scope creep in check (and be aware that this can be a significant percentage of total project effort.)
    – Dan Bryant
    May 11, 2015 at 14:26
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    I don't think this is that bad at all and a Small Claims Court in the UK is staffed with rational and reasonable people. Since the claim is under 10,000 it will be heard in a hearing, likely at a Judge's Room. It is extremely unlikley that a Judge will entertain any kind of non-reasonable behavior and a simple explanation of the facts will suffice. I would personally tell the client you are firing him as a client and calling his bluff to take you to Court. May 11, 2015 at 15:37
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    I can guarantee you if he says he has "beat another developer" in Court he is outright lying. Keep every email, all threatening behaviour and maintain a diary of his actions and communications. Calmly explain to the Judge that it is not reasonable to have to work under such punitive conditions and constant threat of legal action and you have fulfilled the contract to the best of your ability despite the client acting wholly unreasonably. Let the chips fall where they may. I have represented myself in Court three times; it's not scary and Judges have keen intelligence and common-sense May 11, 2015 at 15:41
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    FYI; in the UK you are entitled to a free 30 minute consultation with a lawyer regarding any matter. Just contact a local solicitor and ask for your initial consultation. May 11, 2015 at 15:44
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    I apologize for giving offense; I won't attempt to explain my error except that I didn't mean to offend. I have deleted the comment.
    – MCW
    May 12, 2015 at 17:45

3 Answers 3


Your first course of action should be to secure some legal counsel and get their opinion. Asking a message board for legal advice is only marginally better than doing the same for medical advice... at least in your case you only stand to lose money.

That being said, unfortunately this kind of thing is not uncommon. Customers change their minds all the time, and when it comes back to bite them will blame the project team.

The best way to deal with this kind of situation is proactively, in other words in your original contract have an statement of work and then deliver according to that. If the client wants to change the SOW that is fine, but it would be your right to amend the schedule, or the budget, or both. Remember that any changes must be documented... avoiding these kinds of misunderstandings is what rigorous change management procedures are there for.

Beyond that, the strength of your position depends on the strength of your documentation. Again we are back to the strength of your change management processes. If you just said "OK" to every change without flagging impacts to schedule, budget, quality, etc etc you are more likely to be on the hook.

If you do continue to work on this project I suggest you insist on having a full, complete, signed statement of work outlining exactly what you need to do, when it needs to be done, etc. Just don't sign on for anything that you can't do.

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    +1 for legal advice from the appropriate experts and +1 (if I could) about lessons learned to make a better contract and better PM processes in the future. May 11, 2015 at 13:17
  • +1 Sound advice, particularly for the future. However right now it is all going to hinge on exactly what was stated in the contract and signed up to. Getting legal advice is a must, no arguments here, but it can be quite expensive. I'd like to see the relevant statements from the agreed contract in order to give a high level view on potential liability of the OP.
    – Marv Mills
    May 11, 2015 at 13:59
  • exactly what I was thinking. If I go for a legal advice I may spend even more what the project was worth, spend even more time for legal matters and even if I win it will be not a great victory. At the moment I am inclined to return the whole 1000 GBP back but I wont give him any code back so at least he wont benefit from it and he will have to start from scratch for the third time. And I will have a good lesson to remember. Wasted 2 months working for free. Cant believe how stupid I was. May 11, 2015 at 14:09
  • That's the worst outcome- you get no money (and have wasted your time), the client gets no website (and has wasted their time). They want a website and you want some money. Before throwing the towel in I would quote them realistically how much more they would need to pay to get the finished website. You might be able to find a mutually beneficial arrangement and salvage something from it. But you'd need to be sure of the quote and therefore base it on a defined scope...
    – Marv Mills
    May 11, 2015 at 14:16
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    I'd agree to withhold delivery of any work product if you choose to return the money. You do need to weigh this move against any reputation loss; the world can be quite small. Also remember this: success is a lousy teacher. Think of the ton of lessons learned you can capture with this experience. May 11, 2015 at 14:38

I was in the small claims court last month and I can tell you the Judge expects compensation for work completed. So the other party is not in a position to claim it all back. As for contracts, my judge formed his own opinion, even in the face of UK legislation on the table. So a knocked up contract isn't going to be watertight.


If you have trust in your documentation, do not fold. If you have a clear statement of work with exacting specifications and you deliver to those requirements then he doesn't have a case and is trying to scare you. Changing requirements in a project requires a statement of work addendum, really you should have made him aware of this at the start and should have started billing him as soon as he tried to change things. An important rule for the future is if it's not in the functional requirements document then it's a billable enhancement.

Get legal advice and if your documentation is solid then stay strong and don't fold.

  • Many thanks for the advice Chris and Doug, I fear I did not realize the importance of documentation , even if I repeatedly insisted to get proper specification he send me very short and obscure requirements. So I had to sit for hours nearly every day to discuss project on Skype to move forward. Well lesson learnt. I will never go freelancing again. May 11, 2015 at 13:54
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    @freelanceruk, this isn't a reason to never freelance again, just a stark lesson in the importance of clear and consistant documentation.
    – CLockeWork
    May 11, 2015 at 15:29

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