The Court of Appeal has described it as ‘inexcusable’ that a High Court judge took almost 22 months to produce his ruling in a multi-million pound dispute between Russian parties.
Sir Geoffrey Vos, Chancellor of the High Court, said in Bank St Petersburg PJSC & Anor v Arkhangelsky & Anor that the unwritten rule in the business and property courts was for judgments to be delivered within three months of the hearing.
Sir Geoffrey said the delay from Mr Justice Hildyard, following a 6.5-week trial, was ‘regrettable’ and meant the judge was less able to handle the overall case because findings were dealt with so far apart.
He added: ‘The "three-month" general rule should be adhered to even in long and complex cases. Justice delayed is justice denied. The parties to civil, and particularly commercial, litigation are entitled to receive their judgments within a reasonably short period of time.
‘That period should not be longer than three months. As has been repeatedly said, any other approach will lead to a loss of public and business confidence in our justice system.’
In the event, Vos opted not to uphold the appeal solely on the basis of the delay, but he did rule the judgment unsafe on other grounds.
The underlying issue was a claim for £16.5m by a bank against the defendants under personal guarantees and one personal loan. The defendants counterclaimed for damages against the bank and its chairman for unlawfully causing them harm under Russian civil law.
Hildyard tried the case over 46 sitting days, with the hearings ending in July 2016. He delivered his judgment in May 2018, and the bank succeeded on all its debt claims. The defendants appealed, saying the judge had misdirected himself as to the standard of proof, setting too high a bar for dishonesty to be established. They also alleged inconsistencies in the judgment and said Hildyard took a piecemeal approach which prevented him standing back to see the wider picture.
Vos said the judge had taken a methodical approach and carefully identified the important issues, and he paid tribute to the ‘logic and comprehensive nature’ of the ruling. But reading the judgment as a whole, he was ‘in little doubt’ that the judge applied too high a standard of proof throughout his treatment of the counterclaim. Furthermore, the inconsistencies and the application of a piecemeal approach rendered the judge’s conclusions on the counterclaim unsafe.
Vos added that the judge ‘failed adequately to stand back from his sequence of factual findings so as to consider them as a whole’. A retrial was ordered.