the professional negligence blog

A collaboration between Rebmark Legal Solutions and 1 Chancery Lane

Relief From Sanctions - The Pendulum Swings

    Two decisions delivered shortly before Easter suggest a change in the direction of the Mitchell pendulum. Chartwell Estate Agents Ltd v Fergies Properties SA [2014] EWCA Civ 506 is a "must read" decision of the Court of Appeal. It concerns the failure to exchange witness statements. Both parties had failed to serve witness statements whilst a squabble about disclosure rumbled on. The judge found that the breach was not trivial and there was no "good reason" for the failure. But the trial date was not imperilled and the claim would be doomed if relief was not granted. Even though the Mitchell criteria were not satisfied the judge granted relief. The Court of Appeal upheld the decision, emphasising that the default of the defendants was a factor that took the case outside of the Mitchell "expectation" that relief would be refused. Kaneria v Kaneria [2014] EWHC 1165 is a decision of Nugee J. The judge held that Robert v Momentum Services Ltd [2003] EWCA Civ 299 remains good law and Mitchell does not apply to applications for extensions of time made before the expiry of the relevant deadline. Such an application still has to be judged against the post-Jackson overriding objective but the concern to enforce compliance with rules, practise directions and orders does not have a paramount status.      

Mitchell revised?

A little light relief for Friday afternoon. A decision of Males J started doing the rounds last week:  Vivek Rattan v UBS AG, London Branch [2014] EWHC 665 (Comm). It is well worth a read, not least because it is short. The case concerned misselling (or as the Claimant put in its skeleton argument “misspelling”) of investments. The Claimant took the point that the Defendant’s costs budget had been filed less than the required seven days before the relevant CMC. Applying Mitchell (which of course also involved late service of a costs budget) the Claimant contended the Defendant was only entitled to court fees. Males J described this argument as “manifest nonsense”. That might seem surprising. Is this the start of the tide turning against the harshness of the Mitchell regime? It is nothing of the kind. Reading the case itself dispels any such a notion. The Claimant’s solicitors had written to their opponents asking for confirmation that they would file their budget “on 28 February 2014”; the Defendant’s solicitors agreed that they would file it “by 28 February 2014”. They filed it on 28 February 2014. That was six, not seven, clear days before the CMC. What is the difference between this case and Mitchell? As Males J put it with heavy irony, “the unsophisticated reader might think that [the correspondence] was the clearest possible agreement that a costs budget exchanged on 28 February 2014 would be in time but [Counsel for the Claimant] submits that such a reader would have failed to grasp the true subtlety of this correspondence”. The judge rejected this submission holding: “It is clear that there was an agreement. Even if [the Claimant’s] strained construction of the correspondence had been justified, the Defendant’s solicitors understanding of the position was entirely reasonable. If relief from sanctions had been necessary, which in my judgment it was not, the case for such relief would have been overwhelming”. In this author’s view, Rattan does not signal a dilution of the Mitchell principles. Instead, it is an illustration of the difference between a genuine Mitchell point and one which is, in the words of Males J, merely “futile and time-wasting” and will be discouraged by the courts. As Leggatt J put it in Generali Romania Asigurare Reasigurare SA v Ardaf SA Insurance & Insurance Co [2014] EWHC 398 (Comm): “The decision ... in Mitchell ... has rightly been described as a “game changer” [...]. It is important for litigants to understand, however, how the rules of the game have changed and how they have not. The defendants in this case have sought to rely on Mitchell to turn to their tactical advantage a short delay by the claimants in providing security for costs which in itself had no material impact on the material impact on the efficient conduct of litigation. [...] The defendants’ stance disregarded the duty of parties and their representatives to cooperate with each other in the conduct of proceedings and the need for litigation to be conducted efficiently and at proportionate costs. It stood Mitchell on its head.”

Failure to serve Witness Statements on time – better late than never?

Mitchell is still providing a rich source of material for articles, and concern for those worried about being the subject of the next big professional negligence action…   Following on from Andrew’s post last week, I recently encountered the scenario where one party sought to vary a Court timetable of directions but it was not agreed.  Clearly, if the directions themselves contained an express sanction then it would have been a simple matter of a ‘new’ CPR 3.9 Application for relief from the sanction.  However, the direction was a standard one that merely stated that compliance should have been by a certain time.    This raises the question of if a party is in default should it make a 3.9 Application or a 3.1 Application?  3.1 expressly refers to the possibility of an application being made after the date for compliance.  Nevertheless, it is probable that in reality the 3.1 Application would entail consideration of the ‘new’ 3.9 in any event, given the specific amendments to the overriding objective (as to complying with rules and orders) and hence be little different to Mitchell.  Further, there is the question of what exactly would be the effect of failing to comply?  There have been many applications for striking out but the starting point is merely a refusal to allow the party in breach permission to rely upon the subject matter of the direction: such as witness evidence in my case.  It is to be noted that there is a specific built-in sanction already for failing to serve witness evidence on time: CPR 3.10.   It seems the Courts are tending nowadays to view any breach of any direction without good cause as one which requires an early Application.  The Applications are usually brought still under 3.1 if within time but if the Application is made after the date for compliance it is tempting to apply in the alternative under 3.9.  The new overriding objective does not alter the need for the Courts to make its assessment of how to do justice to the parties.  Often, it seems an exceedingly short extension of time is considered the correct approach if there is good reason for the delay, backed up by an Unless Order: viz. Fons v Corporal (2013) EWHC 1278.  That was the result in my case.  Many courts have effectively disregarded the old prejudice to the other party test.  It is unclear if anything other than a strict approach will ever will be taken otherwise, as the Court of Appeal has pointed out, the Jackson Reforms will have no teeth.   What has become abundantly clear though, is that failing to comply with any Court order is more serious than a year ago and if you can pre-empt any breach with an Application (with good evidence in support!), then you will be in a much better position.  Opponents are less likely to agree variations/extensions nowadays since they don’t want to miss a trick and moreover don’t want to be criticised by the Court themselves.  In a sense, Jackson and Mitchell have curtailed some of the spirit of cooperation engendered by the Woolf Reforms, albeit by focusing upon proportionality and delay.  Time will tell if that is a good thing. 

Costs budgets and professional negligence claims

 Many lawyers are no doubt wondering how the new costs rules, particularly those as to costs budgets, will affect litigation in the future. The recent decision of Mr Justice Coulson in the Willis v MRJ Rundell & Associates Ltd & Anor [2013] EWHC 2923 (TCC) provides some helpful pointers.  The case, which was run under the costs management pilot in the TCC, involved a £1.1m professional negligence claim against a firm of construction professionals. At a costs management hearing in September 2013, both parties submitted costs budgets - £897,369 for the claimant and £703,130 for the defendant. The judge refused to approve either party’s ‘disproportionate’ costs budgets.  The judge had some interesting comments to make on costs budgets and the issue of proportionality. He stated that costs-budgeting was an important tool by which the courts endeavoured to control the costs of civil litigation. In the instant case he considered that the costs budgets were disproportionate and unreasonable because it would ‘cost significantly more to fight this case than the claimant [would] ever recover.’  On professional negligence claims, the judge had the following comments to make. He recognised that they would be more costly than other commercial disputes because they required expert evidence. He also recognised the fact that the courts, when considering proportionality, needed to make due allowance for the ‘for the non-quantifiable, but potentially serious, damage to the defendant’s professional reputation’ that might be caused by claims of this type.  Finally the judge articulated the test of proportionality in the following way:  ‘It seems to me that one test of proportionality is whether the trial is likely to be an end in itself, or merely a lesser part of the process which the parties will use in order to put themselves in the strongest position to argue that, subsequently, the other side should pay all or most of their costs. When the costs on each side are much higher than the amount claimed/recovered, the latter is almost inevitable.’  Fortunately for the parties, the judge explained that the absence of an approved costs budget did not mean the successful party would recover no costs at all. He stated as follows:    ‘However, I should add that, although I am aware that some have taken the view that the absence of an approved costs budget means that that party will recover no costs at all, I do not believe that such a draconian approach is in accordance with the letter or the spirit of the new costs rules or 51G PD.’   This case illustrates the need, as the judge explained, for ‘all litigants and their solicitors [to] get to grips with and comply with the new regime as soon as possible.  

CPRwatch: relief from sanctions

Does the original checklist under rule 3.9 (relief from sanctions) have any role now? That question was considered by Hildyard J in Thevarajah v Riordan (9th August 2013, unreported). The Claimant sought to strike out the Defendant’s Defence for failure to comply with an unless order in relation to disclosure. The Defendant sought relief from sanctions under CPR r. 3.9. The Defendant admitted that he had failed to give disclosure as ordered and the judge found that there were serious failings. The judge found that, although the checklist of relevant considerations under r.3.9 had been removed and replaced, they were nonetheless matters which the court needed to consider as they enabled the court to consider whether relief from sanctions was appropriate under the new r.3.9. Lest there be any doubt that he was reverting to the old ways of doing things the judge emphasised that the new r. 3.9 was not less rigorous but more so: the court should be slow under the new r.3.9 to draw the conclusion that relief from sanctions was appropriate and just. Once non-compliance with an unless order was established, what was required for relief from sanctions was a material change in circumstances (Tarn Insurance Services Ltd v Kirby [2009] EWCA Civ 19). There was no material change in circumstances inThevarajah; in fact the Defendant’s position had worsened. Further, the Defendant was unable to show he had taken reasonable steps to comply with the unless order and therefore no relief was granted. This case highlights the fact that fundamentally rule 3.9 has not changed. The most important part of the old and the new rule is the emphasis on the court considering 'all the circumstances' so as to deal with the application justly. The original checklist was cumbersome but nonetheless a helpful steer as to what circumstances might be relevant. The new checklist is much less helpful: it merely repeats what a court must already take account of under the overriding objective. A judge who only took account of the need for efficiency, proportionality and compliance with court orders would be failing to take account of all the circumstances. Judges know that they are supposed to be tougher, but ultimately what most of them consider to be just in 'all the circumstances' is unlikely to have changed despite the best efforts of Jackson L.J.

Jackson: when is a deadline for a court order 'not written in stone'?

The case of Re Atrium Training Services Limited [2013] EWHC 1562 (Ch) is the latest judgment from the High Court which considers the new rules. The judge was faced with an application to extend time to comply with a court order for a massive disclosure exercise. This came against a background of a history of breaches of a timetable set by the court. The judge underlined the strictness of the new regime but tempered it with comments which are likely to be cited for a long time to come about the dates for compliance with some court orders not being ‘sensibly regarded as written in stone’. He granted the extension of time sought but made an Unless order for compliance. The judge was clear that the application was for an extension of time made before the deadline for compliance with the court order had passed. It was therefore to be decided under the overriding objective and not as an application for relief of sanctions. The Court of Appeal set out the guidelines for applications for extensions of time in Robert v Momentum Services Ltd [2003] EWCA Civ 299. Since then the overriding objective has been amended to include the enforcement of and compliance with orders. Henderson J said that a court would examine an application for an extension more rigorously than it might have done before 1st April and he discouraged the easy assumption that an extension would be granted just because there was no prejudice to the other side. However Henderson J went on to counterbalance this by saying that it was important not to go to the other extreme and to avoid encouraging unreasonable opposition to extensions which are applied for in time and which involve no significant prejudice to other parties. He said “in cases of that nature, considerations of cost and proportionality are highly relevant, and the wider interests of justice are likely to be better served by a sensible agreement, or a short unopposed hearing, than by the adoption of entrenched positions and the expenditure of much money and court time in preparing for and dealing with an application that could have been avoided.” In fact he went even further saying: “although all court orders mean what they say, and must be complied with even if made by consent, there are some orders relating to the completion of specified stages in preparation for trial (such as disclosure, the exchange of witness statements, or a timetable for expert evidence) where there may be so many imponderables when the order is made that the date for compliance cannot sensibly be regarded as written in stone. Everything will always depend on the circumstances of the particular case, and the stage in proceedings when the order is made, but in many such cases it should be understood that there may be a need for reasonable extensions of time or other adjustments as the matter develops. It would, I think, be unfortunate if the new and salutary emphasis on compliance with orders were to lead to a situation where, in cases of the general type I have described, a reasonable request for an extension of time were to be rejected in the hope that the court might be persuaded to refuse any extension at all.”   It is undoubtedly better to be applying for an extension of time before a deadline expires than for relief from sanctions afterwards. The pragmatic approach of Henderson J will be particularly useful if you find yourself in that situation.

Caselaw since 1st April 2013 - leopards and spots?

  The case of Venulum Property Investments Ltd v Space Architecture Limited [2013] EWHC 1242 (TCC) concerned a relief from sanctions application under r. 3.9. The decision was in fact made under the old rules because the application was made prior to 1st April 2013 but the judge (Edwards-Stuart J) took the new regime into account concluding: “In my judgment, when the circumstances are considered as a whole, particularly in the light of the stricter approach that must now be taken by the courts towards those who fail to comply with rules following the new changes to the CPR, this is a case where the court should refuse permission to extend time. The Claimant has taken quite long enough to bring these proceedings and enough is now enough. I therefore refuse this application”. The claimant’s application was for an extension of time for serving the Particulars of Claim. The Claim Form had been issued on 12th November 2012 but served on the very last day for service (12th March 2013). The Particulars of Claim were wrongly served 14 days later – the Claimant’s solicitors forgetting that the long stop deadline for service is four months after the issue of the Claim Form. In the judgment there was a predictable citation in the judgment from Fred Perry v Brands Plaza Trading [2012] EWCA Civ 224 (Lewison LJ): “… courts at all levels have become too tolerant of delays and non-compliance with orders. In so doing they have lost sight of the damage which the culture of delay and non-compliance is inflicting on the civil justice system. The balance therefore needs to be redressed.” There were also predictable citations from Hashtroodi v Hancock [2004] 1 W.L.R. 3206 on courting disaster by leaving issue until expiry of the limitation period and failure to serve (due to incompetence on the part of solicitors) being a powerful reason not to grant and extension of time. The judge looked at all the circumstances and refused relief due to the weakness of the Claimant’s case, poor pleading and a lengthy and unexplained delay of 5 years before instructing solicitors. The tough new regime undoubtedly helped the defendant but one is left with a doubt as to whether the outcome would have been any different pre Jackson. (Image courtesy of - Photographer: Kristin de Moore)