The Court of Appeal has overturned the ruling of a High Court judge who recused himself from committal proceedings that relied on his own previous findings – which the defendant argued made him at least appear biased.
Mr Justice Eder had decided – “with extreme reluctance” – that although the claims of bias were groundless, they were so serious “that the appropriate course is that I should recuse myself”.
He was due to hear committal proceedings against George Urumov, who in the substantive trial was one of several defendants found to have conspired to defraud his employer, Otkritie.
Otkritie launched proceedings against both Mr Urumov and other defendants for contempt. Those proceedings include an application for the committal of Mr Urumov to prison (or other relief) for a range of matters, two of which required High Court permission to pursue.
Mr Urumov – by this stage acting for himself – applied to the judge to recuse himself from the hearing of the application for permission on five grounds of either apparent or actual bias, including that “a fair-minded and well-informed observer would think that the judge had already decided the committal application against Mr Urumov in the light of the many adverse findings in the judgment”.
Having recused himself, Eder J gave Otkritie permission to appeal, saying not only it Otkritie had a real prospect of success but also that he would welcome his decision being overturned.
Lord Justice Longmore, giving the decision of the Court of Appeal in Otkritie International Investment Management & Ors v Urumov  EWCA Civ 1315, said that contrary to Eder J’s reasoning, there was “a consistent body of authority to the effect that bias is not to be imputed to a judge by reason of his previous rulings or decisions in the same case (in which a party has participated and been heard) unless it can be shown he is likely to reach his decision ‘by reference to extraneous matters or predilections or preferences’. There can be no suggestion that Eder J would proceed in the present case by reference to such matters”.
He noted that Eder J applied the observation in Locabail (UK) Ltd v Bayfield  QB 451, that if there is any real ground for doubt, that doubt should be resolved in favour of recusal. “But he does not explain what the real ground for doubt is in this case. The judge specifically said… that the allegations of bias are ‘groundless’ and ‘spurious’.”
Further, the fact that the matter could be dealt with by another judge of the Commercial Court – which was Eder J’s third ground for recusing himself – was not a good reason.
Allowing the appeal, Longmore LJ said: “Usually this court will be astute to support judges exercising what I have called ‘this delicate jurisdiction’ of recusal. But it is also important that judges do not recuse themselves too readily in long and complex cases otherwise the convenience of having a single judge in charge of both the procedural and substantial parts of the case will be seriously undermined.”