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Court of Appeal: litigants in person may get help with relief from sanctions, but only “at the margins”

RCJ [1]

Briggs LJ: CPR makes no “specific or separate” provision for litigants in person

The fact that an individual or a company is a litigant in person is not a reason for the “disapplication” of court orders, rules and directions, appeal judges have ruled.

However, in determining applications for relief from sanctions, there may be cases in which the lack of representation has “some consequences”, though this is “likely to operate at the margins”.

The Court of Appeal was ruling on a claim for trespass and interference with a right of way relating to a development in East London.

Delivering the leading judgment, Lord Justice Briggs said he wanted to “make it clear at the outset” that the fact one party was a litigant in person was “not itself not of itself a reason for the disapplication of rules, orders and directions, or for the disapplication of that part of the overriding objective which now places great value on the requirement that they be obeyed by litigants”.

Briggs LJ went on: “In short, the CPR do not, at least at present, make specific or separate provision for litigants in person.

“There may be cases in which the fact that a party is a litigant in person has some consequence in the determination of applications for relief from sanctions, but this is likely to operate at the margins.”

The court heard in Nata Lee v Abid and Another [2014] EWCA Civ 1652 [2], that the claimants, Mr and Mrs Abid, were represented by leading and junior counsel, while Nata Lee Limited appeared “via one of its directors” in a case “in which legal complexity makes effective self-representation even harder than it usually is”.

Briggs LJ said that at the heart of the issues between the parties was a boundary dispute, in which Mr and Mrs Abid claimed they had acquired a “small but significant” slice of a yard, allowing it to accommodate a parked car.

The judge said this was central to the dispute because access to the residential part of the new, mixed use development was by a door which “opened onto the disputed land”.

Briggs LJ said the trial judge, District Judge Langley, concluded that the “new development encroached into the yard”, based on her preference for the Abids’ expert.

The judge had earlier dismissed an application by Nata Lee to replace its expert, on the grounds, among other things, that it was “too late” and “no good explanation had been given for its lateness”.

Briggs LJ said that this was not a case “in which the relevant requirements with which Nata Lee failed to comply were dressed up in legal jargon of a kind it simply did not understand”.

However, he considered that the judge’s refusal to admit the company’s expert witness “on what was undoubtedly a very late application” was “seriously flawed”.

Lord Justice Briggs allowed Nata Lee’s appeal in relation to the boundary dispute and ordered a retrial of the extent to which the new building and its foundations encroached into their part of the yard.

The appeal was also allowed in relation to “all other aspects” of the claim in trespass and part of the claim in respect of rights of way. Lord Justices Underhill and Moore-Bick agreed.