An application to strike out a defence in a civil claim, on the basis that the defendant had not sought out evidence from related third parties, has been dismissed by the Court of Appeal.
In SPI North Ltd v Swiss Post International (UK) Ltd & Anor, Lord Justice Henderson said there was no general obligation on defendants to make reasonable enquiries of individuals not directly involved in the case.
The appeal court upheld a judgment from the High Court which concluded the defendant was not required to consult other individuals before it could be said they were ‘unable’ to admit or deny a particular allegation.
Henderson LJ went further, saying that to allow the claimant’s appeal would be to generate ‘unnecessary and expensive inter-solicitor correspondence and satellite litigation at a time when the energy and resources of the parties should be devoted to getting on with the action’.
Lawyers for the claimant, in dispute over the ending of a written premium partner agreement to share profits from postal services, argued the defendant was under a ‘positive obligation’ to state which allegations they denied and which they admitted.
The option, of saying they were unable to admit or deny the allegation, was not open where the defendant could speak to former employees who were aware of the facts in dispute and were willing to talk. The claimant said particular individuals in this case possessed highly material information and could have been contacted ‘with ease’ by the defendants.
But the judge pointed out that defendants must file their defence within 14 days of service of the particulars of claim (which can be extended to 28 days) and it was not practicable to expect them to make enquiries of third parties in that time.
He added: ‘The action is still at its earliest stages, and in most cases the preferable course will be for the parties to follow the strict timetable prescribed by the civil procedure rules. It would be completely unrealistic to expect such a process to be completed within the short period allowed for the filing of a defence.’
Imposing an obligation would create ‘endless scope for disagreement’ about what enquiries the defendant should make, Henderson LJ ruled.