Law or Justice – Where Are We Going?

There are two classic forms of Justice:

In the first, a perfectly wise judge dispenses justice under a palm tree. There are no rules, other than a record of his previous decisions, but he achieves the right result because of his wisdom.

In the second a perfectly wise ruler promulgates a code of laws and these are enforced by a a corps of officials. Although not particularly wise they are thorough, logical and incorruptible and they always achieve the right result because of the perfection of the rules.

Most, indeed all legal systems work as a mixture of the two. Exactly where they are placed on the continuum depends on the quality of the judges, the quality of the laws, the sophistication of the community and their lawyers, and so on.

Neither system is perfect: the first system is difficult to predict and hence difficult for others to plan – is the prohibition on killing people or just on killing people unless they attack you? And the second system can fall apart if the laws become ever more complex to take account of more and more exceptions and special cases, so nobody knows what it means, at any rate within a reasonable period.

Where we are coming from

The English legal system has traditionally been based on the first system, with a lot of emphasis being based on the quality of the judges and the legal representation, especially in the higher courts. High Court judges and those in the appeal courts have had an excellent reputation and English lawyers are some of the best in the world. As a result, laws have been reasonably general, and a lot of discretion has been allowed to the judges in interpreting them, and in controlling their own procedure. Even if there have been procedural rules these have always been filled with “unless the court otherwise directs” and judges have been encouraged to look to the  justice of the ultimate decision.

Now the system was far from perfect. It was far too slow  – quite ordinary cases could run on for 2-3 years  – and surprisingly expensive. A lot of time was wasted waiting for various procedural hearings, or persuading the courts to enforce orders that they had already made, and which your opponents were just ignoring. And if you had a bad judge you got some shockingly bad results. So as business geared up into the 80s and 90s things needed to change.

Where we got to

A good place to draw breath was the beginning of this century. In 1999 the Civil Procedure Rules (CPR) came in to replace the Rules of the Supreme Court and the County Court Rules that went  back essentially to Victorian times. These were intended to speed up court procedure and force the parties and their lawyers to get on with things. They provided all sorts of new innovations, such as the exchange of witness statements long before trial, and more detailed disclosure of documents, and provision for expert witnesses, and telephone hearings, and modernisation of the rules on costs, which virtually nobody understood.

They represented a significant movement in the direction of the second, rule-based system. There was far more detailed procedure and the courts were encouraged to enforce it, at any rate by way of penal provisions for costs. But still the judges could alter things, and exercise their discretion, and the (new) overriding objective was

To deal with cases justly, and at proportionate cost.

Outside the courts there had of course been a lot more changes. Governments decided that they didn’t just want to govern the country, but to change things as well. So they set about passing vast numbers of laws on all subjects, including not only Acts of Parliament, but vast swathes of secondary legislation by way of rules and orders and regulations. And they created other bodies to do more of this, and started regulating the financial services industry, and employment, and health and safety, and so on. And the EU of course did the same, only in 15 different languages. So there was an awful lot more law than there had been.

At the same time the IT revolution arrived, making it initially lots easier to prepare much longer documents, such as contracts and leases, and witness statements, and then much easier to keep track of all the new laws using the internet. Whether the two balanced each other is a matter for debate.

Where we are now

There can be no doubt that there are now more rules than ever, and there has been a further significant movement towards the rule-based system. But as well as the steady accrual of more and more regulation, both for the country at large, and within the legal system, there have been several recent developments that have pushed things sharply in that direction, mainly arising from the Jackson Report.

The new costs rules which came into force in April 2013 meant that all cases worth more than £25,000 had to have their costs approved by a Judge beforehand, or, in effect, they would not be recoverable from the losing party if you won. It didn’t matter how unfair this was. Nor that many judges knew little about costs or what was involved in running a case at the sharp end. It was decided that predictability of cost trumped all this. Not that it was a bad thing to have predictable costs, but it was some way from pure fairness.

Then there were the further rules that came into force in October 2013, and which I dealt with in a piece at the time. These emphasise the importance of detailed case management at the first Case Management Conference, which will now last for an hour or two and will plan the whole conduct of the case from a viewpoint of 2-3 months after issue. Lots of decisions that used to be made by the lawyers as matters proceeded are now going to be fixed by the DJ at this hearing.

Now, all litigation is, to some extent,unpredictable. When both sides know what the answer is going to be they don’t fight about it, but come to a rapid settlement. If the facts and the law are clear then you don’t need to spend all that money on lawyers and so on. And in many cases which started off as potentially arguable a bit of early investigation show one side or the other that the experts all think one way, or your key witness isn’t as clear as you hoped, or the legal problem was determined by the Court of Appeal  in an identical case in 1987. So you just have to bite the bullet. But this still leaves a number where the outcome might go either way.

In some of these, things come out of the woodwork as the matter proceeds. You find another witness who you didn’t know about, or who knows more than you expected. Or there are things in the documents that the clients had overlooked and only appear when you are well on the way to trial. Or counsel finds that case in the CA, which was mis-indexed on Lexis. The result is that the case needs to be altered, to accommodate the new witness, or the new documents, or whatever. Various time limits will need to be amended, the other side may need to be allowed to deal with the new material and there may even need to be alterations in the time estimate for the trial.

In the past this wouldn’t be too disastrous. There would probably be penalties in costs, and the interests of justice in coming to the right decision have now been challenged by the importance of allocating the appropriate share of the court’s resources to the case, and to enforcing compliance with rules, practice directions and orders. But still the basic concept of getting the right result. However, all was going to change at the end of 2013.

The Mitchell Case

The latest CPR revision came into force on 13.11.13 and on 27.11.13 the CA gave down the judgement in the Mitchell v NGN case (Plebgate). As you know, they refused to allow the Claimant to recover any costs even if he wins because his costs schedule was 5 or 6 days late. The costs claimed amount to over £500,000 and comfortably exceed any likely award of damages. The reasons given were that the rules were there to be obeyed and the court was going to make an example of them in order to encourage the others: well these were the clear reasons that were applied;  the CA expressed them with a bit more subtlety.

Following this case there have been large numbers of cases in which parties were penalised for being slightly out of time in doing various things, often by having claims or defences entirely struck out or large amounts of evidence disallowed. A few of them were cases in which severe penalties were deserved, after a long history of failures to comply with the rules, but many of these were complete windfalls for the opponents who had noticed minor technical errors. There is a very useful compilation of the recent case-law in Gordon Exall’s website Civil Litigation Brief

One of the most recent and most disturbing cases is M A Lloyd v PPP International, which was commented on by the Nearly Legal blog here. 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. And as Turner J is a High Court Judge this is binding on all the Masters and DJs who deal with the vast majority of the procedural work. They are going to notice a big increase in their workload.

What do we conclude

Judges still retain some leeway, but a lot less than they used to have. The rules are coming out on top. And because rules are rarely prepared as a whole code, but usually built up piecemeal filling the gaps and correcting the problems, they often are inconsistent, contradictory, and have unexpected results. There will always be problems that need sorting out. Because at the end of the day the purpose of a legal system is to provide justice to the litigants.

This is why judges have always been given the discretion to sort things out, and look at the overall picture. Of course they need to bear in mind the fact that no system will work if too many people fail to follow the rules and ask to be treated as exceptions. We don’t want to go back to the delays there were in the past. But no system of justice can work if every slight deviation from the myriad of rules is wholly fatal to one side or the other. That is not justice.

The Judicial Oath that is taken by all members of the judiciary is:

“I, _________ , do swear by Almighty God that I will well and truly serve our Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth the Second in the office of ________ , and I will do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of this realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill will.”

One would hope that the “laws and usages of this realm” do not entirely overwhelm the obligation to “do right.”

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