Pay Up or I’ll…Wait For It!

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The 7-day letter is one of the oldest forms of legal communication. Asking your lawyer to write to a debtor telling them to pay up or be sued has been around since Victorian times, and indeed for a lot longer. The exact form, and the period given, has varied over the years. When I qualified (a disturbing time ago now) it was usual to give 7 days, although the court were fairly sanguine if you gave less, and given that all communication was by letter, and all payments by cheque, the debtor would have to get their skates on to get payment to you in time. The letter could be very short and to the point, and no information other than the amount due and perhaps the invoice number was required.

Then the Pre-Action Protocol in the CPR increased the length of time to at least 14 days, and required certain basic information, and the provision of details of where to get help to be given to non-businesses. This was generally felt to be a good idea, although some debtors would play the system, asking for extra time to take advice when they had no intentions of taking any. But it meant that you might get offers of settlement before you issued proceedings rather than afterwards, which did at least save the issue fee. And you might be able to weed out the debtors who had no income or assets and so weren’t worth suing at all.

Well, everything has now been turned on its head, at least in respect of claims against individuals by businesses by the Pre-Action Protocol for Debt Claims which comes into force on 1st October 2017.

The Scope of the Protocol

It covers any business (including sole traders and public bodies) claiming payment of a debt from an individual (including a sole trader). It complements any regulatory regime applying to the creditor (eg  under the Financial Conduct Authority) which must be complied with as well, but does not apply to debts covered by other Protocols , such as the Construction and Engineering, or the Mortgage Arrears Protocols, or to claims by HMRC for taxes and duties (covered by PD7D).

So a claim against a consumer or a sole trader (eg F Bloggs t/a The Red Lion PH) is covered. A claim against a partnership or a limited company (eg F Bloggs Ltd t/a The Red Lion PH) isn’t.

What is Required

I am afraid that there is no alternative to setting a lot of the Protocol out in this piece, although I have summarised where I can. The exact wording can be seen via the link here and above.

  1. The Letter of Claim

The creditor has to send a Letter of Claim to the debtor. So far no real change. Note however that this must be sent by post – email or other electronic means will not do unless the debtor has expressly requested that the post is not used. And the Letter of Claim needs a lot more information than before, including:

  • the amount of the debt
  • whether interest or other charges are continuing
  • details of any oral agreement
  • the date and parties of any written agreement and an offer to supply a copy on request
  • assignment details if relevant
  • if regular instalments are being offered, or paid, an explanation of why the offer is not aceptable and why a court claim is being considered
  • how the debt can be paid – where and how – and how to discuss payment terms
  • the address where the completed Reply Form should be sent

The creditor also needs to send

  • an up to date statement of account, or details of how the claim is made up including any interest and administrative charges
  • the Information Sheet and Reply Form in Annex I
  • a Financial Statement form (like the example at Annex II)

2. The Response by the Debtor

If the debtor does not respond within 30 days the creditor can start proceedings.

If they do (using the Reply Form) they can ask for copies of any relevant documents, supply any document sof their own, and make proposals. The creditor should allow at least 30 days from receipt of the Reply Form, or 30 days from provision of any documents requested before issuing proceedings. If the debtor needs more than 30 days to get debt advice they can ask for it and the creditor should allow extra time if reasonable in the circumstances.

Any proposals for payment by instalments should be considered and if not acceptable the creditor should give the debtor reasons in writing. And a partly completed Reply Form should elicit an attempt to contact the debtor to obtain further information.

3. Disclosure of Documents

If the debt, including any interest or time for payment etc, is disputed the parties should exchange information and documents to enable them to understand each other’s position. And if the debtor asks for a document or information it should be provided within 30 days, or an explanation should be given as to why it is unavailable.

4. Attempts to settle and ADR

Parties should negotiate on any points still in dispute using ADR if appropriate. This can range from discussions to formal steps such as mediation in a larger case.

If the parties reach agreement on repayment the creditor should not start court proceedings while the debtor complies with the agreement. And if they wish to start court proceedings at a later date they must send a new Letter of Claim and start the Protocol afresh, although they don’t need to send documentation again if it has been sent in the last 6 months.

5. Taking Stock

If the debtor has responded to the Letter of Claim but agreement has not been reached the creditor should give them at least 14 days’ notice of their intention to start court proceedings, to allow both parties to review their positions and see if proceedings can be avoided.

The Consequences of not Complying with the Protocol

These are the usual consequences of not complying with a Pre-Action Protocol – the court can give more time, penalise in costs or interest or in other ways. But it looks at the substance, and is not concerned with minor or technical breaches.

It is not clear at present how far the courts are going to enforce compliance with the Protocol, given the enormous number of debt claims that go to a default judgment and enforcement without any court officers actually looking at them. The other protocols generally cover areas which are disputed and where the parties can raise breaches in a Defence or application of some kind. Most debt claims are undefended and with most debtors unrepresented they may not know if corners have been cut or even avoided altogether. See below.**

The Annexes

You really need to read the Protocol for these. They set out

  • An Information Sheet (compulsory)
  • A Reply Form (also compulsory)
  • A Standard Financial Statement (an example)

So What does a Creditor Do?

This cannot be ignored. It will have a radical affect on the recovery of debts from individuals, and unless businesses adapt appropriately they may suffer a disastrous hit to their cashflow. Because today’s 14 day letter will turn into between 30 and 104 days under this new regime, and possibly more if the debtor goes through the process, agrees to pay and then only pays a couple of instalments, when the Protocol must start again.

Possible suggestions:

  1. Don’t allow credit – get paid up front before the goods or services are supplied. You may lose some customers, but customers who don’t pay aren’t worth having.
  2. If you deal with businesses consider avoiding sole traders. Claims against partnerships and companies are not affected by this. Although a small company may not be worth suing either, for different reasons.
  3. And make sure you know who you are contracting with (always a good idea anyway). Is The Red Lion PH run by a sole trader, or a partnership, or a company, and if so who are they?
  4. Credit-check you customers before you do business with them, not just before you sue them.
  5. Start the process very early – the moment that the payment becomes overdue.
  6. Send non-protocol letters chasing debts as present, knowing that at the end of the day you probably won’t sue for claims below a certain value.
  7. Insure, or factor, or sell your debts, or consider doing so. 50% of a debt that is actually paid is better than 100% of a debt that isn’t.
  8. Get some training so you can get things right, or pass the debt collection to an outside collector who knows the ropes.
  9. And get your paperwork in order. The new system will expose errors that you used to be able to hide in the past.
  10. Or hope for the best and see above.**

And the Verdict?

When the Mortgage Arrears Protocol was introduced a number of years ago there was much concern in the industry that the new procedure, not that different to that given here, would make mortgage arrears impossible to recover. In fact, once the lenders had got used to things I understand that it made very little difference, and although the process took longer this merely allowed the borrowers who could pay if given time a bit more time to pay, to everybody’s advantage. The borrowers who couldn’t pay were evicted a bit later, but as most of the debts were covered by the security of the houses the lenders got paid in the end. So on the whole it was a good result.

I’m not sure that this will happen here. Consumer debts aren’t covered by security on the whole, and small businesses can be badly affected by delays in payment. There is a lot of scope for the ingenious debtor to delay things and play the system.

These procedures may be appropriate for a finance company, or a credit card company which is recovering debts on a large scale, although they are already covered by the FCA’s requirements which are not that different. They are less appropriate for the plumber or nursery, or indeed the  friendly local solicitor who don’t insist on payment in advance at the moment. Although that may have to change.

It will be interesting to see how this works out.


 

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The UNISON Case – Biggest SC Case for Years

R v Lord Chancellor (ex p Unison) [2017] UKSC 51

This is my 100th post on this blog. I started it in June 2011 and had been intending to put up a commemorative piece, going over my favourite articles and looking forward to the future. I may still be doing this, but not now. Because the SC’s decision this morning is so significant that I have to cover it immediately

The facts of the case are simple. In 2013 the government imposed fees on applications to the Employment Tribunals, all of which had previously been free. By way of contrast the civil courts have charged fees for claims, applications and other activities for hundreds of years. But the ET fees were very high – £390 for the simplest claims, and £1,200 for the more complex ones, including Unfair Dismissal, Equal Pay and Discrimination claims. There were also fees imposed in the appeal tribunal – the EAT. These fees were generally to be paid in two stages – to issue, and to proceed to a hearing.

These fees were much higher than the fees for equivalent claims in the courts, and were in many cases to be paid by applicants who had just lost their jobs, so it is not surprising that immediately after they took effect  – on 29th July 2013 – the number of applications slumped by about 80%. It would appear that many employers took the view that instead of negotiating a settlement at an early stage they would wait until they saw if the employee paid the fee to issue and to proceed to a hearing before negotiating, as the number of settlements reported to ACAS fell as well.

Now this case wouldn’t be important if all that happened was that the fees were reduced to something a bit more reasonable. This is clearly what is going to happen in the end, even though there is no indication of this as I write. No, the interest is in the way the Supreme Court laid out the manner in which it clearly intends to behave in the future, as Brexit happens and the ECJ fades out of the picture. Because it made it abundantly clear that despite the lack of the sort of constitutional supremacy that a Supreme Court has in say the United States or Germany it is going to lay down the law in a totally fearless way and is not afraid to extract constitutional rights from the Common Law if it can’t find them in statute.

The Decision

The main speech is given by Lord Reed, with whom the other Justices in a bench of 7 agree. After setting out the facts, the statistical reports, and the history of the case, he sets out the constitutional principles  – in this context the rights to access to the courts, and that statutory rights are not to be cut down by subordinate legislation. And he then gives a lesson on the constitution in extremely simple but devastating words:

66.             The constitutional right of access to the courts is inherent in the rule of law. The importance of the rule of law is not always understood. Indications of a lack of understanding include the assumption that the administration of justice is merely a public service like any other, that courts and tribunals are providers of services to the “users” who appear before them, and that the provision of those services is of value only to the users themselves and to those who are remunerated for their participation in the proceedings. The extent to which that viewpoint has gained currency in recent times is apparent from the consultation papers and reports discussed earlier. It is epitomised in the assumption that the consumption of ET and EAT services without full cost recovery results in a loss to society, since “ET and EAT use does not lead to gains to society that exceed the sum of the gains to consumers and producers of these services”.

67.             It may be helpful to begin by explaining briefly the importance of the rule of law, and the role of access to the courts in maintaining the rule of law. It may also be helpful to explain why the idea that bringing a claim before a court or a tribunal is a purely private activity, and the related idea that such claims provide no broader social benefit, are demonstrably untenable.

68.             At the heart of the concept of the rule of law is the idea that society is governed by law. Parliament exists primarily in order to make laws for society in this country. Democratic procedures exist primarily in order to ensure that the Parliament which makes those laws includes Members of Parliament who are chosen by the people of this country and are accountable to them. Courts exist in order to ensure that the laws made by Parliament, and the common law created by the courts themselves, are applied and enforced. That role includes ensuring that the executive branch of government carries out its functions in accordance with the law. In order for the courts to perform that role, people must in principle have unimpeded access to them. Without such access, laws are liable to become a dead letter, the work done by Parliament may be rendered nugatory, and the democratic election of Members of Parliament may become a meaningless charade. That is why the courts do not merely provide a public service like any other.

69.             Access to the courts is not, therefore, of value only to the particular individuals involved. That is most obviously true of cases which establish principles of general importance. When, for example, Mrs Donoghue won her appeal to the House of Lords (Donoghue v Stevenson [1932] AC 562), the decision established that producers of consumer goods are under a duty to take care for the health and safety of the consumers of those goods: one of the most important developments in the law of this country in the 20th century. To say that it was of no value to anyone other than Mrs Donoghue and the lawyers and judges involved in the case would be absurd. The same is true of cases before ETs. For example, the case of Dumfries and Galloway Council v North [2013] UKSC 45; [2013] ICR 993, concerned with the comparability for equal pay purposes of classroom assistants and nursery nurses with male manual workers such as road workers and refuse collectors, had implications well beyond the particular claimants and the respondent local authority. The case also illustrates the fact that it is not always desirable that claims should be settled: it resolved a point of genuine uncertainty as to the interpretation of the legislation governing equal pay, which was of general importance, and on which an authoritative ruling was required.

70.             Every day in the courts and tribunals of this country, the names of people who brought cases in the past live on as shorthand for the legal rules and principles which their cases established. Their cases form the basis of the advice given to those whose cases are now before the courts, or who need to be advised as to the basis on which their claim might fairly be settled, or who need to be advised that their case is hopeless. The written case lodged on behalf of the Lord Chancellor in this appeal itself cites over 60 cases, each of which bears the name of the individual involved, and each of which is relied on as establishing a legal proposition. The Lord Chancellor’s own use of these materials refutes the idea that taxpayers derive no benefit from the cases brought by other people.

71.             But the value to society of the right of access to the courts is not confined to cases in which the courts decide questions of general importance. People and businesses need to know, on the one hand, that they will be able to enforce their rights if they have to do so, and, on the other hand, that if they fail to meet their obligations, there is likely to be a remedy against them. It is that knowledge which underpins everyday economic and social relations. That is so, notwithstanding that judicial enforcement of the law is not usually necessary, and notwithstanding that the resolution of disputes by other methods is often desirable.

72.             When Parliament passes laws creating employment rights, for example, it does so not merely in order to confer benefits on individual employees, but because it has decided that it is in the public interest that those rights should be given effect. It does not envisage that every case of a breach of those rights will result in a claim before an ET. But the possibility of claims being brought by employees whose rights are infringed must exist, if employment relationships are to be based on respect for those rights. Equally, although it is often desirable that claims arising out of alleged breaches of employment rights should be resolved by negotiation or mediation, those procedures can only work fairly and properly if they are backed up by the knowledge on both sides that a fair and just system of adjudication will be available if they fail. Otherwise, the party in the stronger bargaining position will always prevail. It is thus the claims which are brought before an ET which enable legislation to have the deterrent and other effects which Parliament intended, provide authoritative guidance as to its meaning and application, and underpin alternative methods of dispute resolution.

He then sets out the principle as found in all the standard constitutional documents, which some of us will remember from the beginning of a law degree – Coke’s Institutes, Blackstone’s Commentaries, and of course Magna Carta:

  1. In English law, the right of access to the courts has long been recognised. The central idea is expressed in chapter 40 of the Magna Carta of 1215 (“Nulli vendemus, nulli negabimus aut differemus rectum aut justiciam”), which remains on the statute book in the closing words of chapter 29 of the version issued by Edward I in 1297:

“We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.”

Those words are not a prohibition on the charging of court fees, but they are a guarantee of access to courts which administer justice promptly and fairly.

For myself I prefer the traditional translation of the passage:

To no man will we sell, to no man will we deny or delay Justice and Right

He then quotes the  cases leading up to the present day. You can see them yourselves from the link at the top of this piece.

The Conclusion

Having looked at the principle he then applies it to the case. For court fees to be lawful they have to be set at a level that everybody can afford, taking into account any remission available. This is not being achieved. For a number of reasons:

  • The sharp and substantial and sustained fall in the volume of cases … as a result of the introduction of fees.
  • People are often obliged to resort to the ET jurisdiction involuntarily and unexpetedly.
  • The Review Report said 10% of claimants said they didn’t bring a claim because they couldn’t afford to do so. This means reasonably afford to do so – not by having to sacrifice “the ordinary and reasonable expenditure required to maintain …an acceptable standard of living”.
  • Hypothetical examples show that the cost to low-income families can be all their free income for up to 3 month. This is not affordable in the real world.
  • The statutory power of remission is far too restricted to change matters. It is limited to exceptional circumstances, but the problem is systemic.
  • Fees can prevent access to justice if they make it futile or irrational, such as in the case of low value claims for say unlawful deductions from wages, especially as many successful applicants recover nothing from their employers in the end.

The fees are therefore unlawful.

He scampered over the remaining points with a side-swipe at an attempted justification on economic grounds

99.             The primary aim of the Fees Order was to transfer some of the cost burden of the ET and EAT system from general taxpayers to users of the system. … Similarly, in his written case, the Lord Chancellor states that, in pursuing the aim of transferring the costs of the tribunals from taxpayers to users, “the higher the fees are, patently the more effective they are in doing so”. This idea is repeated: in recovering the cost from users, it is said, “the higher the fee, the more effective it is”.

100.         However, it is elementary economics, and plain common sense, that the revenue derived from the supply of services is not maximised by maximising the price. In order to obtain the maximum revenue, it is necessary to identify the optimal price, which depends on the price elasticity of demand. In the present case, it is clear that the fees were not set at the optimal price: the price elasticity of demand was greatly underestimated. It has not been shown that less onerous fees, or a more generous system of remission, would have been any less effective in meeting the objective of transferring the cost burden to users.

The fees are also held to be contrary to EU law as imposing limitations on the exercise of EU rights which are disproportionate, and hence contrary to Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU

Article 47 guarantees in its first paragraph that “everyone whose rights and freedoms guaranteed by the law of the Union are violated has the right to an effective remedy before a tribunal”. In terms of article 52(1):

“Any limitation on the exercise of the rights and freedoms recognised by this Charter must be provided for by law and respect the essence of those rights and freedoms. Subject to the principle of proportionality, limitations may be made only if they are necessary and genuinely meet objectives of general interest recognised by the Union or the need to protect the rights and freedoms of others.”

As a result, and despite the Lord Chancellor arguing that the SC should only make a declaration that the current levels of the fees were too high the court disagreed in strong terms:

119.         That argument mistakes the nature of the illegality with which we are concerned. This is not a case in which an administrative decision is being challenged on the basis that relevant considerations were not taken into account, or on the basis that the decision was unreasonable. The Fees Order is unlawful under both domestic and EU law because it has the effect of preventing access to justice. Since it had that effect as soon as it was made, it was therefore unlawful ab initio, and must be quashed.

Lady Hale gave a subsidiary speech explaining why the fees also amounted to unlawful discrimination on the grounds principally of discrimination against women, who made up a high proportion of the more expensive Type B claims. And the rest of the court agreed with both of them.

The Consequences

The fees are quashed. Everybody who paid them will be refunded (at a cost estimated at £32m) and until new lawful fees are fixed all ET and EAT proceedings are free. There is a lot of egg on the government’s face, mainly on Mr Grayling’s who was LC at the time they were imposed.

But more importantly the SC has shown that it will stand up for the rights implicit in the rule of law – that there must not only be laws but they must be effectively enforceble through the courts if need be. “That is why the courts do not merely provide a public service like any other.”

I have written on many occasions on the subject of the need to have an effective court system that the public can use, and if it wasn’t the middle of the night I would give you the cross references. The most prominent are Having Rights is Not Enough and Mediation – not the Complete Answer, but there are many others – it is one of my hobby-horses. I may return to this in post 101 shortly, especially after the news that the civil courts made a profit in the last year. Therefore it is really good news that the SC is doing the heavy lifting for us and won’t let a mere politician get in their way.

So that is why I feel that this is the most important SC case for years, even despite the Brexit case in January R v SoS (ex p Miller) That merely showed that the government was doing something that it could do but doing it the wrong way. This is showing that the whole basis of what they are trying to do is wrong, and that is what gives it the importance that it has.

So What are the Risks? Should I take It?

Lawyers are often asked by their clients what they think about an offer that has been made by the other side. This is one of the most difficult parts of lawyering, but one of the most rewarding, and when I do this I feel that I am really earning my fees.

Because there are no end of factors to take into account. Some of the more obvious are:

  • How the offer compares with the amount claimed
  • What your chances of success are
  • How these will affect the likely result – might you lose, or only win less
  • And how much this depends on inponderables – like how key witnesses do at trial, or what the undisclosed documents might show

But you rapidly get on to more complicated areas:

  • Will the other side pay the amount of the offer?
  • Will they be able to pay any judgment for more?
  • Can your client afford to take the case to trial?
  • Can your opponent?

And then there is the nature of the advice that you give:

  • You need to give a young, inexperienced client more advice than an older, wiser one
  • But if the client has little money you can’t spend too much time or money in doing this
  • Some problems are legal and need detailed explanation
  • Some are really matters of business and more for the client to decide

However, few clients are aware of the possible cost, or risk, of substantial litigation, and most need to be advised on this, so that they can make an informed choice on what they want to do.

Of course, not all clients have the same goals. Some want certainty, and a rapid settlement even if they might get more by pushing on. Others want to get the most possible, even if they are taking a lot more risk of failure, or significant irrecoverable expense.

No, advice of this sort is where litigators really earn their money, and it was in the spotlight recently in the case of Graham Seery v Leathes Prior [2017]EWHC80(QB) which was a professional negligence claim against a firm of solicitors in Norwich by a disgruntled client who settled a claim, with their advice, and then felt that he might have got more if he has pushed on a bit further.

What I always like about this sort of thing is the chance to read the letters of advice written by other lawyers. This one, written by Dan Chapman, was a cracker. It was given against a background of a very slippery opponent, and a claim against a company wth a doubtful financial position. The Claimant had been made offers from the other side that were getting up to £310,000 but negotiations were stalling and a decision had to be made on whether to take the offer, or make tactical steps which might get more. Part of a letter quoted in the judgment reads:

“… I have a strong feeling that we might be at the end of the road in these negotiations; I know my counterpart feels that his clients are also being ’emotive’ about the dispute and thus perspective is being lost. He feels also there is not likely to be any more movement from his clients, rightly or wrongly.

So I suggest you discuss the current offer – which totals 310k with 210k being paid up-front (I think we should be able to reallocate the figures to get it all net, so assume this for the time being) and the remaining 100k paid over 18 mths with interest – with your wife tonight. It seems to me a huge financial decision for you and your family; if we reject this now I think we will be tied down to litigation for sometime. We will need to fight the Tribunal claim, issue winding up petitions and, to gain any real value (since the Tribunal claim is worthless in real terms), issue (and succeed on) a High Court unfair prejudice claim. The costs will be enormous (not by SJ Berwin standards, of course, but huge nonetheless) and no guarantee of any return whatsoever if FWA go bust in the meantime (or manage to reallocate their assets). So take some time to seriously consider your options, and check that you and your wife are comfortable with where we are going – as I say, my very strong hunch (and I am usually right on these things) is that their offer is now their final offer. Of course, that doesn’t make it right or mean you should accept it – but I need to advise you of the consequences of rejecting what might well be their final offer. As experienced litigators, we tend to have a feel for how these sort of cases pan out, and you don’t pay me to tell you what you want to hear, but what I would advise. In this particular case, if it were me then I would accept the offer, bank the cash (as galling as it undoubtedly is to you) and get on with my life. But it is not me who is living this case, and I shall do whatever you instruct me to do!

Please don’t misunderstand me – I (and my firm) will be more than happy to fight this all the way. However, I have a duty to ensure that you (and your family) are fully aware of what you are getting yourselves into. I don’t want to be walking out of the High Court in 2 years time, telling you that whilst we have won the total damages you are able to recover from FWA amount to zero since the company has gone into liquidation, and then handing you my firm’s bill for 70k, at which point you might wish you had accepted the 310k on offer! You would not be too pleased with me, either, if I had not have advised (sic) you to accept that 310k! And then I would be getting sued for negligence!”

All excellent stuff, especially the bit that I have emphasised.

In the light of this you won’t be too surprised to hear that Sir David Eady, an immensely experienced judge, now sitting in retirement, dismissed the claim. A warmer judge (Sir David being notoriously unemotional) might have congratulated the solicitors on the quality of the advice given. I do so here, for what it’s worth.

 

 

No Human Rights Here – McDonald v McDonald in the Supreme Court

McDonald v McDonald [2016] UKSC 28

The European Convention on Human Rights, and the Human Rights Act 1998 are basically intended to regulate the relationship between individuals and the State, not between individuals themselves, which is generally left to domestic law. The HRA provides this expressly:

s 6.1 It is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way which is incompatible with a Convention right.

So what happens when one individual, or private organisation, while exercising their own rights, normally as to the ownership of property, infringes the Human Rights of another individual?

In the housing field the easiest way for this to happen is when a landlord seeks possession of a house or flat belonging to him, but occupied by somebody as their home, and so the occupier’s rights would normally be protected under Article 8 of the Convention:

Art 8.1 Everyone has the right to respect for his private and fimily life, his home and his correspondence.

Art 8.2 There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic wellbeing of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

This clashes with the landlord’s rights under Article 1 of the First Protocol to the Convention:

A1P1. Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions. No one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law and by the general principles of international law.

The preceding provisions shall not, however, in any way impair the right of a state to enforce such laws as it deems necessary to control the use of property in accordance with the general interest or to secure the payment of taxes or other contributions or penalties.

If the occupant is evicted they lose their home. If not the landlord is deprived of his property. Which takes priority? It is easy enough if you are asking the judge to exercise his discretion and make an order, because he can take all these factors into consideration. But how do you decide if the landlord is seeking possession under a mandatory ground, such as ground 8  or s21 HA, when the judge has no discretion in the matter?

Well, the matter was decided in respect of property belonging to public bodies long ago, in the well known cases of Manchester CC v Pinnock (2010), and Hounslow v Powell etc (2011) I wrote about them at the time (here and here) and the SC decided that in an appropriate (ie very strong) case the court should decide whether the order sought was “proportionate” in all the cirdumstances. In practice the courts rarely exercise this discretion, but it is there and cannot be ignored, with public bodies generally adapting ther procedure to take it into account. And in this context “public bodies” includes most social landlords, following the CA case of Weaver v London & Quadrant (2009).

This was all based on the wording “a public authority” and so at first glance couldn’t affect relationships between private individuals, or private bodies. However, these are all cases where there is a mandatory ground of possession, with no discretion to the judge, and a strong feeling of unfairness, or lack of proportionateness, so the occupants’ advocates were inventive, and argued that although Joseph Soap, the landlord, wasn’t a public body, the local county court was, and so the court was bound by the HRA even if the landlord wasn’t. The court would therefore have to consider and deal with the human rights points, and if that affected the landlord’s rights then this was covered by the proviso in A1P1. If the argument succeeded than it would in fact apply to all areas of law, and not just housing claims, so it was a matter of great importance.

McDonald v McDonald

This was an undoubtedly hard case. The defendant, an adult with psychiatric and behavioural problems, was living in a house bought for her by her parents with the aid of a short-term interest-only mortgage from CHL. She had an AST of the property, paid from her benefits. Unfortunately her parents’ financial circumstances deteriorated and they could no longer pay the morgage payments in full. CHL appointed receivers under the LPA who exercised their power to serve a s21 notice on the defendant, and brought possession proceedings.

At Oxford County Court the defendant’s representatives argued that the court ought to consider the proportionality of making an order for possession, given that there was medical evidence that having to move would have a severe adverse affect upon her. HHJ Corrie held that he had no power to do this as the claimants were not a public body. However, if he did have the power the Judge would have exercised it and dismissed the possession claim, there being no other way to protect the defendant’s interests.

The CA dismissed the appeal and the case got to the SC and judgment was given on 15.6.16. They identified three questions:

  • should a court consider proportionality in a claim to evict a residential occupier by a private sector owner;
  • if so, is can s21 HA be read in a Convention compliant way; and
  • if so, would the Judge have been entitled to dismiss the claim as he said he would?

Proportionality

The defendant’s counsel argued strongly that the court was clearly a part of the state, and so was bound to consider proportionality in making any possession order, and if there was a private sector claimant would have to balance their A1P1 rights against the occupant’s Art 8 rights when coming to a decision.

The court said that things were not as simple as that. Parliament has regulated the position between private landlords and tenants for many years and although the tenant with an AST has restricted rights, they are significant and show where parliament has democratically decided to strike the balance between them. There are no circumstances where a judge should use Article 8 to make a different order from that determined by the contractual position, as regulated by the legislation. And as Lord Millett explained in Harrow LBC v Qazi (2004) the court:

 is merely the forum for the determination of the civil rights in dispute between the parties… once it concludes that the landord is entitled to an order for possession, there is nothing further to investigate. [paras 108-109]

Having looked at the cases from the ECHR the court decided that although there was some support for the view that Art 8 was engaged, there was none that said that a judge had to consider proprotionality when making a possession order, so the appeal was dismissed.

Can s21 be made compliant?

The court said that it is one thing to imply words into legislation which are consistent with the scheme of the legislation, but are needed to make it comply with the Convention. It is quite another to insert words that are wholly inconsistent this its scheme. That is not interpretation, but amendment, and is something for parliament and not for the courts to do. If the section was incompatible then there would have to be a declaration of incompatibilty. But in the circumstances this did not arise.

Should the Judge have dismissed the claim?

The judge could only postpone any order for possession bu up to six weeks, and then only if there was exceptional hardship. It was difficult to see how it would ever be proportionate to dismiss the posession claim altogether, and prevent the mortgagees getting repaid at all. The mortgage term expired only three weeks after the County Court judgment, and the only way to recover the loan was by selling the property with vacant possession. On the facts possession should have been postponed by six weeks at the most.

And this means?

The court has banged the argument that all law is subject to the Convention because all laws are enfirced by courts very firmly on the head. And also indicated that s21 and other mandatory possession grounds have been decided by parliament and that the courts must accept the balance between the parties that parliament has struck.

There may be a few small points on introductory tenancies still to be considered, but these are granted by public sector landlords, and this case, hard as it is to the parties concerned, really draws all this argument to a close, some 18 years after the Human Rights Act came into force.

Sighs of relief from private sector landlords. And at least the rest of us know where we are.

More details as ever with the Nearly Legal blog.

Excuse Me Sir, is this Your House?

This is a tale that shows what happens when legislation is passed in a hurry, without thinking things through, and the potential mess that can result. It also shows how judges can use common sense and legal ingenuity to remedy things, or at any rate limit the damage. These aspects have wider implications in these times of the restriction of Legal Aid and the Jackson changes to the Civil Procedure Rules that spawned the Mitchell case and all the procedural problems that have flowed from that. Perhaps I will expand on those on another occasion.

However, the story for today concerns Mr Best the builder, and the case is Best v Chief Land Registrar [2014] EWHC 1370 (Admin).  Mr Best was working on a property nearby in 1997 when he noticed 35 Church Road, Newbury Park, which was derelict and appeared to have been abandoned. The neighbours told him that the old lady who owned it had died and that her family don’t seem to be doing anything about it. So, no doubt with an eye on a potential profit, he secured it, repaired the roof, and over the years worked on the property when he had time, eventually moving in himself January 2012.

Now once upon a time there was a 12 year limitation period for land, and once you had occupied it for 12 years it was yours. But under the Land Registration Act 2002 there is now a two-stage process for registered land – you register an interest with HM Land Registry after 10 years adverse occupation, HMLR send formal notice to the registered owner, and if they don’t object you get registered as the owner, and their titles is extinguished. But if they do object then unless you can show estoppel, or other legal reasons, or it is a boundary dispute, then you will lose and they can evict you, and almost certainly will.

Now whether Mr Best wanted to recoup his investment, or wanted to live in the house that he had brought back from the dead I can’t say, as the report is silent on this point. However he asked HMLR to set the wheels in motion, and hit a snag. The Chief Land Registrar refused to send out the notice on the grounds that Mr Best had been committing a criminal offence by living in a residential property as a trespasser since s144 LASPO 2012 came into effect on 1st September 2012. The Registrar considered that you couldn’t acquire adverse possession for good public policy grounds, and besides the High Court had decided this in the case of R (Smith) v Land Registry [2009] EWHC 328.

Smith was about a man who claimed to have acquired a bit of a public highway from Cambridge CC by storing cars and other things on it for many years. HHJ Pelling QC, sitting in the High Court, said that he couldn’t, for three reasons:

  • it was a criminal offence under s137 Highways Act 1980 to obstruct the public highway and you couldn’t get rights by committing criminal offences as a matter of public policy;
  • there was a long series of cases to show that you couldn’t get adverse possession of a public highway except perhaps in really exceptional circumstances;and
  • if it was possible to get possessory title then it would be subject to the public rights of way anyway as you cannot extinguish them by adverse possession.

This decision was upheld by the CA mainly on the last two of these grounds.

Nothing daunted, Mr Best’s counsel argued that there was a world of difference between the Highways Act, backed up by a long history of the inalienability of highways, and s144 LASPO, which was a section tacked on to a totally different statute (the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012) and which merely imposed a criminal liability on certain conduct, and didn’t set out to regulate the whole of the acquisition of title by adverse possession. Furthermore, even the paper owner of land couldn’t obstruct the highway that passed over it, or allow others to do so save by exercising powers under certain legislation for certain limited times and purposes. That did not mean however that all unlawful acts would prevent prescriptive rights being acquired.

Take the case of Bakewell Management v Brandwood [2004] UKHL 14. Here the HL dealt with the awkward problem that had built up following an earlier case of Hanning v Top Deck Travel. This held that as there was a prohibition in s 193 Law of Property Act 1925 to driving on a common without lawful authority it was impossible to acquire a right to do so by prescription, even by more than 20 years’ use. Freeholders took advantage of this by claiming large sums for vehicular access to large houses on commons all over the country. In Bakewell the HL held that prescription had no problem with people acting unlawfully ie tortiously. That is what it meant – doing things without a legal right for long enough. And as s193 allowed a landowner to grant authority, the mere fact that there was a criminal offence involved didn’t make that much difference. The landowner might have granted permission in a lost recent grant – the normal legal fiction for a prescriptive right being that the owner had granted the right recently but the document had been lost. This couldn’t happen with an obstruction of a public highway (as in Smith). And it showed that a mere criminal offence was not enough.

In Best’s case Ouseley J looked at the complicated and clearly fully-considered scheme for dealing with prescriptive rights dealt with by the LRA 2002 and contrasted it with the perfunctory and clearly bolt-on offence created by s144 LASPO 2012. He decided that s144 created a new offence to deal with a short-term problem of people squatting in residential premises, so as to enable the police to deal with them more easily, rather than alter the law relating to prescriptive rights as a whole.

[As a sideline, many lawyers protested about the pointlessness of the s144 legislation, covering as it does many actions  that are already offences under s7 Criminal Law Act 1977 and elsewhere and I covered this in a piece at the time.]

The 2012 offence only deals with squatters who enter as trespassers  on residential buildings and live there or intend to do so. It doesn’t cover gardens, sheds garages etc, or living in offices or factories, or occupying a residence but not living there – eg using as a workshop or concert venue. So it is very restricted. And it makes no distinction between people who have just entered and people who have been there for 30 years – any residential occupation after 1st September 2012 is an offence. It is a very blunt tool.

Ouseley J concludes after going through the authorities, and pointing out the the trespass remained a crime that could be the subject of prosecution if appropriate, in para 86

Parliament should be taken to have thought that the public policy advantages of adverse possession at common law meant that the mere fact that the adverse possession was based on criminal trespass did not and should not preclude a successful claim to adverse possession. Before any claim could arise in reliance on adverse possession, ten or twelve years of adverse possession would have had to pass without effective action by owner or by an enforcement authority, whether in civil or criminal proceedings. If that were the position, title could be extinguished or a change in owner registered (if the statutory processes were completed satisfactorily), without any public interest being engaged, unless particular circumstances meant that adverse possession should not of itself be a sufficient basis for an extinguishment of or transfer of title. Those circumstances are not where the trespass was a crime, but where the land in respect of which adverse possession was claimed was itself subject to rights which could not be extinguished, as with a highway, or was land of which a landowner/statutory undertaker could not be dispossessed because of the statutory provisions under which it held the land, in effect making the land inalienable or title inextinguishable, or creating preconditions for title transfer which were unmet by adverse possession alone. That would cover at least a number of situations in which trespass would be a criminal offence but it would not involve focussing on the fact of crime, rather it would involve focussing on whether extinguishment or transfer of title as a result of adverse possession was appropriate in the public interest in respect of that land.

He held that the Chief Land Registrar was wrong and that Mr Best did qualify for 10 years adverse possession and was entitled to invoke the procedure under Sch 6 LRA.

So Parliament has not abolished the concept of adverse possession to dwellings by accident, while leaving it in being for the gardens and garages, and for offices and factories. It remains as it always has, and s144 is just an offence that the police can invoke on trespassers if they want to do so. Anecdotal evidence is that they are no keener to use their powers under s144 than they were to use their similar powers under s7 Criminal Law Act 1977. But only because the Land Registry needed to know the position and was prepared to take the case to a High Court Judge to get a decision. And because Ouseley J worked his way carefully through things to get the right result, with the aid of Philip Rainey QC for Mr Best.

Whether Mr Best wins in the end is open to more doubt. There has been a lot of publicity as a result of the court case, and the house is apparently worth £375,000 or so. If the true owner comes forward his argument may all have been in vain. And I suspect that the fact that he has clarified the law for the rest of us will be very little comfort to him.

There is a fuller legal coverage of Best in the excellent Nearly Legal blog here.

PS I ought to also mention Jonathan Karas QC for the Registrar

 

UPDATE  – for news on an appeal to the CA in Best see here.

Spencer v Taylor – Good News for Landlords

Spencer v Taylor [2013]EWCA Civ 1600

This piece is a bit late, as the judgement was given before Christmas. But I’ve been busy, and there has been a lot of Mitchell-related nonsense going on.

We need to go back a bit. In the old days, before the new legislation there was very little private rented accommodation about, because the rents were controlled and it was virtually impossible to get tenants out even if they weren’t paying the rent. Then the new assured tenancies arrived and rent controls were relaxed, and it became possible to recover possession if there was a good reason, especially if the rent got seriously into arrears.

But landlords were still reluctant to commit themselves to possibly a lifetime of commitment, if their idea of a good reason differed from the judge’s. The mandatory orders under Ground 8 for tenants who were 2 months in arrears of rent were a start. However, what they wanted was the certainty of getting the property back if they wanted to. And this was where s 21 Housing Act 1988 came in. Because if a landlord served a s 21 notice and got the procedure right the Judge would have to make an order for possession in 14 days (or no later than 6  weeks if there would otherwise be serious hardship). There was no discretion.

And there was no fancy form of notice – they just had to give 2 months’ notice in writing.

Well, as you might imagine, landlords liked this, and the supply of properties to let increased rapidly. Perhaps I ought to say before you complain, that I realise that there were no doubt other reasons for this as well – the difficulties in getting a mortgage and the reductions in benefits and the economy generally for a start.

However, things are never simple. s 21 was drafted when ASTs were in their infancy and the draughtsmen didn’t realise that virtually all ASTs would run for 6 months as a fixed term, and then run on as periodic normally monthly tenancies thereafter. It would appear that they expected them to be either entirely fixed term, being brought to a prompt end at the end of the term, or to be periodic from the outset. And in the neat way that draughtsmen have they gave two forms of notice that had to be given – one for fixed terms and one for periodic terms.

The fixed term notice has given no difficulty. What is needed under s 21(1) is

  • a notice in writing signed by the landlord (or at least one of joint landlords)
  • requiring possession in not less than 2 months
  • expiring after the end of the fixed term

Hard to go wrong here, provided you can prove that the notice was actually given. The periodic notice however was much more complicated in practice. Under s 21(4) you needed

  • a notice in writing signed by the landlord (or at least one of joint landlords)
  • stating that after a date given possession is required under this section
  • the date must be at least 2 months after service
  • and must be the last day of a period of the tenancy
  • and must be no earlier than the earliest that the tenancy could have been brought to an end by a Notice to Quit if these were not invalidated by s 5(1). [in practice this wasn’t a problem as this was almost always less then 2 months].

The problem was getting the day right. A monthly tenancy starting on the 5th ends on the 4th of the next month and it’s the 4th that you have to give, or it’s invalid. Lots of scope for getting it wrong, and having to start again, even, sometimes,  if you had a saving clause. And as almost every AST was terminated when it was a periodic tenancy the established wisdom was that you had to use this form. So it mattered.

But no more. Lewison LJ in the Court of Appeal (who was an eminent landlord and tenant counsel in his day) decided to cut through the wreckage and simplify things. He noticed that s 21(1) applied

on or after the coming to an end of an assured shorthold tenancy which was a fixed term tenancy

Now this tenancy had been a fixed term tenancy at the outset, in 2006, but had been periodic ever since the initial 6 months expired. The notice that had been served in 2011 was the s21(4) periodic one and it was arguable that the date selected was incorrect (the saving clause was not as clear as it should be). So the parties went to the CA presumably expecting to argue about the saving clause. And Lewison LJ decided that even if it was an invalid s 21 (4) notice it was a perfectly valid s 21(1) notice. It ticked all the boxes – it was signed, required possession in not less than 2 months, and it expired after the end of the fixed term. So all the arguments about s 21(4) just didn’t matter. And the famous 2003 CA decision of Fernandez v McDonald , which said that the correct date was vital, was strictly speaking irrelevant as the court only dealt with a s 21(4) notice.

For completeness I ought to say that Lewison LJ went on to find that the notice would have been valid under s 21(4) as well, but that is beside the point. Because NOBODY IS GOING TO USE s 21(4) NOTICES AGAIN.

You don’t need to. Unless your AST has NEVER been a fixed one, which is extremely unusual, and indeed this is another reason to avoid that arrangement, s 21(1) notices may be used in every case. Because the CA have said so in Spencer v Taylor. They are just so much easier. And although I will for one be unhappy to see s 21(4) go as it has been good to me in producing reasons to be given work by landlords, opportunities of earning fees in sorting out messes that landlords (and some non-specialist lawyers) have got into, and unexpected get-out-of-jail-free cards for my tenant clients, it must be for the best.

However, if you are a landlord, or acting for a landlord, do remember that before serving any sort of s 21 notice you have to be sure that any deposit has been properly protected, the appropriate notices etc served, and re-served as required by Superstrike v Rodrigues   (& see my further comments here) after the fixed period has expired. Or any s 21 notice is invalid and you’re in trouble.

IMPORTANT NOTE

I have just heard that the tenant has applied for permission to appeal to the Supreme Court, so things are still in the air. Anthony Gold are representing the landlord and have more info here. So until this is finally decided it is best to continue using the s 21(4) notice if the notice is served after the fixed term has expired (the “established wisdom” referred to above) just in case the SC don’t agree with Lewison LJ. Which will be a pity.

PS – Leave to appeal refused 24th July 2014. See my note. So the useful decision stands.

No More Time – the importance of M A Lloyd v PPP International

We civil litigators have all been given a very nasty shock by the most recent and most disturbing cases of  M A Lloyd v PPP International,  When the case was first out the interest was on the Claimant’s lawyers, who have an interesting professional history. But this was a distraction. Because Turner J decided that the time for service of witness statements, and indeed most other times for doing things, can no longer be extended by agreement of the parties. There has to be an order of the court. There’s a useful comment on this and some other similar issues on the Nearly Legal blog here.

The reason given by the Judge was CPR 3.8(3) which  provides that

Where a rule, practice direction or court order-

(a) requires a party to do something within a specified time; and

(b) specifies the consequences of failure to comply,

the time for doing the act in question may not be extended by agreement between the parties

As CPR 32.10 says that if witness statements are served late the witness concerned cannot be called without leave of the court, these are “consequences” and so the time cannot be extended by agreement.

And because of Mitchell the court should only extend time if there are exceptional reasons, such as the solicitor concerned being taken seriously ill. So instead of agreeing with your opponent to exchange expert reports 7 days later than ordered, because the expert is being a bit slower than you would like, and there being no harm to either party, and no delay on the trial date, solicitors are now going to have to make an application for an extension of time which may well be treated by the court as an application for relief from penalties, under CPR 3.9, which the court should normally refuse, under the Mitchell doctrine.

Previously it had always been assumed that the reference to the “consequences”was a reference to an “unless” order when the court had prescribed penalties because of previous failures to adhere to the rules, but this no longer seems to be the case. And it is a serious matter. There are consequences set out in the rules for failing to include documents in Lists of Documents, failing to serve witness statements in time, and numerous other things. In all these cases the parties are going to have to make applications for extension of time. And although it is only the decision of a judge at first instance, the decision by Turner J, a High Court Judge, will be binding on all Masters and DJs, who handle the vast majority of this work. They had better not book too much holiday in the next few months because they are all going to be working their socks off for the foreseeable future.

It may be that the CA steps in to sort matters out, but I doubt it, given Mitchell. We’ll have to see how things develop.

The best way to do so is to follow Gordon Exall’s excellent blog Civil Litigation Brief which covers everything remotely connected to the problem. (What will he do when it’s all sorted out, as it surely has to be?)