Knock-out blow as Punch debt claim disallowed

Fred Bell, jubilant over the outcome of thew legal battle over the Cross Keys lease in Selkirk.
Fred Bell, jubilant over the outcome of thew legal battle over the Cross Keys lease in Selkirk.

A SELKIRK businessman pursued for two years for a debt he didn’t owe last week described the experience as a “nightmare”.

Punch Taverns claimed pub boss Fred Bell owed more than £11,000 in back rent and other costs at the town’s Cross Keys Inn. But earlier this month the publican was granted a decree of absolvitor in a civil case, which means the not only does Mr Bell not have to pay the money, but the pub giant is prevented for pursuing him for the cash again.

Instead, Punch is going to pay him £300 to cover his court-related costs.

Mr Bell said: “It’s been very stressful. I have never been in court in my life and I was there seven times. It was so clear-cut that I didn’t owe this money.”

Last January Mr Bell, who owns the Dryburgh Hotel in Newtown St Boswells and rents the Fleece in Selkirk, gave Punch notice he was quitting the Cross Keys Inn because overheads were too high.

He closed the Market Place premises in March – and soon started receiving letters from Glasgow solicitors acting for Punch Taverns saying he owed rent.

In July they wrote claiming he owed them over £11,200.

But Mr Bell’s lease with the pub giants said he only had to give a month’s notice.

The letters continued, followed by a court summons for £11,600, £7,600 for back rent and £3,000 for items purchased, but which Mr Bell says he hadn’t bought.

He said: “At this point I thought ‘This is a joke, how can they be asking for this money when they have a copy of the lease – which they had sent me – which says the lease notice was 28 days?’ How could they be asking for six months?”

When negotiating with Punch Taverns in spring the previous year, Mr Bell told us, he had held out for the single month’s notice before signing the contract.

“I’ve seen too many businesses suffer,” he said. You can rack up a lot of debt in six months. I wasn’t signing anything until I was happy with it.”

He was so confident he had a cut-and-dried case that he decided to defend himself, but admits: “I was out of my depth.” And he is grateful for the help of Selkirk solicitor Iain Burke.

The case was continued seven times before going to a proof hearing last Friday. Mr Bell did not attend on legal advice and the matter went ahead.

The next he heard, via a letter from Mr Burke, was that the case had gone in Mr Bell’s favour and Punch were paying his costs.

“I have gone from owing over £11,000 to them giving me £300,” said Mr Bell. “I’m just happy to draw a line under it. I’m delighted it’s finished and I can get on with things.”

A spokesman said Punch Taverns did not want to offer any comment.