Judge calls for fast-track civil contempt procedure after application is stymied by criminal trial

London bus: alleged accident

London bus: alleged accident

A claimant found to have brought a bogus personal injury claim – but then cleared of fraud in the Crown Court – can only face civil contempt proceedings if there is new evidence, the High Court has ruled.

HHJ Peter Hughes QC, sitting as a High Court judge, instead urged the Civil Procedure Rule Committee to consider creating a fast-track procedure to ensure that “those who make and rely on false statements to make bogus or inflated claims are punished speedily and effectively” by the contempt regime.

While it is well established that being punished for contempt of court is no bar to a subsequent prosecution based on the same facts, Judge Hughes said there appeared to be no authority on whether the reverse could happen.

He was ruling in First Capital East Ltd v Plana & Anor [2015] EWHC 2982 (QB), where a London bus driver claimed he had suffered an accident that had caused a minor brain injury.

The defendant’s insurer admitted liability for 90% of the claim. In support of the claim dealing with quantum, which the claimant put at £637,000, the driver and his son each filed witness statements, signed and verified by statements of truth, which the judge said “sought to present the picture of a claimant who had been left seriously incapacitated and in need of constant care”.

By the time £125,000 of interim payments had been made, the defendant presented surveillance evidence that contradicted these symptoms. HHJ Collender QC in the Central London County Court declared the claim fraudulent, struck it out and ordered the repayment of the £125,000 plus costs on an indemnity basis. In addition, he directed that the case be transferred to the High Court to enable an application to be made for permission to bring contempt proceedings.

This was delayed while the claimant left the country, and when he returned he was arrested; the contempt application was issued two months later and in response the claimant maintained that his claim was genuine.

HHJ Hughes recounted: “After a three-day trial, he was acquitted by the jury… The verdict may seem surprising in the light of Judge Collender’s observations, but these, of course, would not be before the jury, and the surveillance evidence, which I am told was. I have not seen a transcript of the proceedings, and it would not be right for me to comment further on the verdict.”

The judge said he had “no hesitation” in finding that the case against both the claimant and his son were strong. In relation to the claimant, he concluded, two “important and competing considerations” had to be weighed in the balance.

“The first consideration, relied on by the applicant, is that the court should itself punish those who seek to rely on false statements in civil proceedings before it with a view to financial gain. The second, based on the principle of finality in litigation, is that the same allegations should not be litigated twice over.

“Each case must be considered on its merits. I do not believe that the acquittal by the jury is an absolute bar to permission being granted for committal proceedings, but, in my view, permission is unlikely to be granted except, for example, where there is material evidence that was not before the jury, or where important new evidence has since come to light. This is not such a case.

“Were permission to be granted, the judge hearing the committal application would be invited to reach a different conclusion to the jury on the same evidence and applying the same standard of proof. That is not an attractive proposition.”

If it was inappropriate to grant permission to bring committal proceedings against the claimant, he added, then it was the same for the son. He said he came to these conclusions “with reluctance”.

HHJ Hughes said that the lesson of the case was that applications for permission to bring contempt proceedings “need to be made without any delay”, particularly for cases before district and circuit judges, who do not have the power to grant permission.

He concluded: “This difference of approach may be something that the Civil Procedure Rule Committee might wish to consider in view of the importance of ensuring that those who make and rely on false statements to make bogus or inflated claims are punished speedily and effectively…

“It ought… to be possible to streamline the practice and procedure to ensure that applications arising out of county court proceedings are referred to the High Court immediately and fast-tracked to ensure that a decision is made with the minimum of delay.”

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