The court can lawfully stay proceedings or order parties to engage in non-court-based dispute resolution processes, the Court of Appeal ruled on Wednesday in a widely awaited verdict. However in Churchill v Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council Sir Geoffrey Vos declined an order to stay proceedings in a claim concerning Japanese knotweed. The council’s internal complaints procedure ‘may not be the most appropriate process for an entrenched dispute of this kind’ the master of the rolls said.
He said that though the judge would have stayed the claim in May 2022 ‘had he been able to see this judgment’, the case had moved on. He added: ‘There is little point in doing so now, since nothing will be gained if a one-month stay were granted’.
The dispute centres on a Japanese knotweed nuisance claim brought against the Welsh local authority by James Churchill. It is alleged that the plant has spread from council land onto private property. The council argued the claimant should have followed ADR options, including its internal complaints procedure, before pursuing legal action.
The lower court dismissed the applications, but permission was granted to bring the case to the Court of Appeal.
The judgment found the judge in a lower court, who dismissed the council’s stay application, was not bound by Halsey v Milton Keynes General NHS Trust . The deputy district judge had referred to Halsey when dismissing Merthyr Tydfil’s stay application by stating he was bound to follow the statement that ‘to oblige truly unwilling parties to refer their disputes to mediation would be to impose an unacceptable obstruction on their right of access to the court’.
In lead judgment, Vos, with whom Lady Chief Justice Carr and Lord Justice Birss agreed, said paragraphs nine to 10 of Halsey ‘was not part of the essential reasoning…and did not bind the judge to dismiss the council’s application for the stay’.
Allowing the appeal in part, he said: ‘The court can lawfully stay proceedings for, or order, the parties to engage in a non-court-based dispute resolution process provided that the order made does not impair the very essence of the claimant’s right to proceed to a judicial hearing, and is proportionate to achieving the legitimate aim of settling the dispute fairly, quickly and at reasonable cost.’
The master of the rolls said factors including the form of ADR being considered and whether parties were legally represented or advised, and the ‘nature of the process contemplated will be relevant’ when determining if a stay of proceedings or an order for ADR should be made.
This article is now closed for comment.