The rulings in Denton and Mitchell on relief from sanctions have “profound importance” when applications to set aside default judgments are considered, a High Court judge has ruled.
Judge Jeremy Richardson QC, sitting as a High Court judge at Hull Civil Appeal Centre, also ruled that telephone hearings were not suitable for “difficult cases” unless there was no alternative.
The judge said the three-stage approach set out in Denton had “considerable relevance” when courts considered the issue of what amounted to a “good reason” for a default.
Delivering judgment in Hockley v North Lincolnshire NHS Foundation Trust, Judge Richardson said courts must “embrace scrutiny of the seriousness of the default and why it occurred”.
He went on: “Plainly, the court would wish to consider all the circumstances of the case. The discipline of the three-stage approach is entirely apposite to an application to set aside a default judgment when considering whether there are good reasons for doing so.”
In Hockley, which involved a clinical negligence action, Judge Richardson said the defendant had been at default for failing to file an acknowledgement of service until 13 days after the expiry of the deadline.
The claimants secured a judgment in default, which the defendants successfully overturned at a telephone hearing.
“Difficult cases should not be undertaken by telephone unless there is no alternative,” Judge Richardson said. “Such hearings are amenable to short decision-making cases and matters which are truly procedural rather than requiring the fully-reasoned exercise of a judgment.
“A party is entitled to a telephone hearing of any application which is under an hour. In assessing that time, allowance must be made for a judgment to be delivered and even some time for reflection.
“A case of this kind where there is demand for the exercise of judgment in a difficult factual matrix, where the consequences are likely to be very significant, should not be conducted by telephone hearing. It is recipe for rushed judgment and that does not produce justice. It is certainly comprehensively unfair to the judge.”
Judge Richardson ruled that the defendant was “the author of its own misfortune” and the default judgment should not be set aside. He described the acknowledgement of service as “not a mere procedural formality”, and said there were “no good reasons” to set aside the judgment in default.