A High Court judge has granted relief from sanctions to claimants who failed to complete their claim in the time allowed because they were out of the country.
Sitting in Birmingham, Judge Oliver-Jones QC said the breaches of CPR guidelines amounted to ‘trivial’ issues and the claims could continue.
It is believed to be the first time since the landmark Mitchell ruling in November that the court has granted relief from sanctions and appears to show the judiciary will not show a zero tolerance approach to all cases.
Oliver-Jones admitted his judgment could be used to argue insufficient regard to the ‘wide range of interests’ identified by the master of the rolls in his summary of the Mitchell case.
But he added that relief from sanctions could be granted as the post-Mitchell relationship between justice and procedure ‘has not changed so as to transform rules and rule compliance into trip wires’.
The case itself involved 134 claimants who alleged they were advised that an investment in Spanish ‘off-plan’ property development would be protected by bank guarantee. They also allege they were told that Spanish lawyers, identified as ‘ELS’, would be acting for them.
The claimants were put into three groups, each of which was given a date in June or July 2013 to serve individual particulars of claim.
In total, 123 claimants met the deadline and a further three were granted relief from sanctions unopposed at the time.
The breaches of the court’s order by eight claimants arose because they were either abroad or away from home and unable to sign and return key documents.
What followed was a series of emails between the claimant and defendant parties disputing an extension to the time to serve the claims.
It was heard the claimant firm was suffering IT problems and had not warned clients they would need to sign documents before they went abroad.
In his summary, Oliver-Jones said to refuse relief would be a ‘disproportionate response’ on the basis of the solicitor’s ‘regrettable but not egregious’ errors.
He said: ‘As the decision in Mitchell now underscores, we are now in a new ‘era’ or ‘culture’ that must take a ‘no-nonsense approach’.
‘However, the starting point in an application for relief from sanction is to consider the nature of the non-compliance.’
What happened in these cases, he added, was a ‘failure of form rather than substance’ and could ‘properly be regarded as trivial’.
Oliver-Jones said that if the pressure of work was cited as the reason for non-compliance, relief from sanctions would not be granted, but that a lack of knowledge of holiday arrangements could be treated with a tolerant approach.