Failure to abide with Court deadlines - a timely reminder to progress your case

The ruling in the case of Little v Bloomsbury Law Solicitors [2022] 11 WLUK 351 on 23 November 2022 is significant for legal practitioners as it serves as a stark reminder as to the importance of complying with Court deadlines. Failure to comply or meet deadlines imposed by the directions set out in Court Orders is usually and almost certainly detrimental to one’s case, and often can prove to be fatal to those proceedings. This issue came into question in this case after solicitors representing the Appellant, Mr. Little, had failed to comply with an Unless Order to file an appeal bundle within a specified period of time.

In summary, the proceedings arose after the Appellant had instructed the Bloomsbury Law Solicitors (“the Respondent”) in respect of a property transaction, however, the Respondent had concerns over the Appellant’s ownership of the property and whether indeed he had a right to sell the property, and thus benefit from the proceeds of the sale. The Appellant issued proceedings in respect of these sums, and whilst the funds were ultimately transferred to him, the Respondent withheld sums in respect of interest and costs. A Judgment was issued in December 2019 in those proceedings, which the Appellant was unsatisfied with. As a result, the Appellant sought to appeal this Order and Court rules dictated that “as soon as practicable, but in any event within 35 days of the filing of the appellant’s notice, the Appellant must file an appeal bundle…” (Para. 6.3 of Practice Direction 52B of the Civil Procedure Rules).

The Appellant and his solicitors failed to do so, and on 17 March 2020, the Court made an Unless Order requiring compliance with this requirement by no later than 17 April 2020. Crucially, the Court’s Order did not have any provision for service. Instead, the Order was uploaded to the Court’s electronic filing system (CE-file) utilised by the Court and solicitors to file and receive documents. The Appellant and his solicitors failed to comply with this deadline, and as such his appeal was automatically struck out. The Appellant’s solicitors only became aware of the Unless Order nearly 2 years later when they checked the Court’s CE-filing system and found the Unless Order issued on 17 March 2020. The Appellant’s solicitors immediately filed an appeal bundle as per the terms of the Order, on 4 February 2022, and made an application to set aside the Unless Order and to reinstate the Appellant’s appeal.

This sparked several issues to be considered by the Court. In the first instance it was clear to the Court that the Appellant was in breach of his compliance of the Unless Order. The Court determined that even though an administrative error may have resulted in the Order not being served on the parties, the Appellant’s solicitors nonetheless had access to the Court’s CE-filing system and therefore should have taken action to check the case filings regularly in anticipation of an Order, and having regard to their requirements to file an appeal bundle as per the Civil Procedure Rules. Therefore, although service in consideration of CPR 6.20 had not taken place, there was a responsibility on the Appellant’s solicitors to check the Court’s filing system on a regular basis knowing that an appeal on their client’s case was underway.

The Court also considered whether relief of sanctions should be granted to the Appellant under the circumstances, and it determined that this had been a serious and significant breach, and as a result relief would not be granted to the Appellant. In their determination, the Court considered the test in Denton v TH White & others taking into account whether (1) the breach was serious and significant, (2) why the breach occurred, and (3) taking the circumstances of the case into account when making their decision to grant relief. In view of the requirements, it was clear to the Court that the breach was serious and significant, and no good reason existed for the breach. This was due to the fact that the Appellant had failed to comply with this Order some 2 years late. The Court further commented that filing an appeal bundle timeously is critical in any process of appeal, and the fact that the Appellant’s solicitors had not followed up for some 2 years is a serious breach. The application was dismissed, and the Appellant’s appeal remained struck out.

On first thought, this outcome may seem unreasonable in view of the provisions of CPR 6.20 on methods of service. However, considering the fact that the Appellant’s solicitors had access to the Court’s electronic filing system, should have been aware of their obligations to file an appeal bundle as provided for by Practice Direction 52B, and failed to follow up or progress the case in good time, the decision is actually not that surprising. This clearly demonstrates a substantive breach which led to the dismissal.

In view of this decision, it is clear that the Court will take a strict approach in considering the actions and conduct of solicitors in proceedings. As such, this decision serves as a timely reminder of the importance for solicitors to stay on top of Court deadlines, follow up with the Court consistently in anticipation of any Orders, and review their obligations to the proceedings regularly. As with this case, failure to comply with deadlines may result in a fatal outcome to your client’s case, and potentially expose your firm to a professional negligence claim, not least an embarrassing conversation and explanation owed to your client.

Written by: Simeon Simeonov, Foreign Qualified Lawyer

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