The High Court has rejected pleas to adjourn a £250m case over the coronavirus lockdown – telling the parties to co-operate over ways to conduct a remote trial.
The joint liquidators of One Blackfriars Limited had tried to adjourn next month’s five-week trial over the alleged mishandling of the company’s administration. The trial was set down as long ago as November 2018 and involves four live witnesses of fact and 13 expert witnesses.
The application to adjourn was made at a pre-trial review earlier this month, with the liquidators saying a delay was appropriate and necessary due to restrictions caused by the pandemic.
Mr John Kimbell, sitting as a deputy High Court judge in Blackfriars Ltd, Re, said the earliest the trial could be rescheduled for was early 2021, and the earliest it could enter the general list in the Chancery Division was June 2021.
Kimbell refused the application, saying that a delay in resolving the dispute until next year was in neither side’s interests. He said the experience of the courts so far in conducting remote trials was that they had been successful when the proceedings involved multiple parties and in excess of 10 witnesses.
‘It is not, it seems to me, a case in which it can be said that it is essential to have the witness, the cross-examiner and the judge and the other participants in the same physical space,’ said Kimbell.
The judge said the technical challenges were not so great to require an adjournment now, although he acknowledged the issue of broadband connections and bandwith would be essential for the parties in the case, given there may be 17 people trying to log in at one time. He suggested it may be preferable for witnesses to travel to a few locations as close as possible to their home, for example solicitors’ offices or other premises.
Kimbell added: ‘That also will alleviate the anxiety that many people suffer from, including judges, when it comes to the moment of being dialled into proceedings and to being interrupted in the course of the proceedings by unexpected household events.’
The judge ordered that the parties continue to prepare for trial, and to co-operate in exploring ways in which a fully remote trial can take place safely in according with guidance from the lord chief justice. These arrangements will be reviewed at a remote pre-trial review next week.
*The Law Society is keeping the coronavirus situation under review and monitoring the advice it receives from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Public Health England.