Civil Courts Structure Review: Final Report

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My critique of Lord Justice Briggs  long-awaited 299 page final report http://bit.ly/2ayk0qL. on the Civil Courts Structure Review:

The final report follows an extensive series of meetings with judges, practitioners, stakeholders and users of the civil courts, and a series of detailed written and oral submissions after the publication of the review’s interim report in January 2016. The review makes a series of recommendations intended to inform the current programme of wider court modernisation being undertaken by HM Courts and Tribunals Service.

It also makes a number of recommendations on different aspects of the civil justice system, such as enforcement of court rulings, the structure of the courts and deployment of judges. A summary of the main point follows.

Briggs LJ identified five main weaknesses of the civil courts structure:

Weaknesses

a. Lack of adequate access to justice due to excessive costs expenditure / risk and the “lawyerish culture and procedure of the civil courts”

b. Inefficiencies from the “continuing tyranny of paper” and inadequate IT facilities

c. Court of Appeal delays

d. Under investment in civil justice in the regions

e. Weaknesses in the processes of enforcement

Final Recommendations

1. The “Online Solutions Court”

To resolve a perceived access to justice defecit, Briggs LJ recommends introducing an Online Court and the extension of fixed costs. The new court is to have its own set of “user-friendly rules” created by a new cross-jurisdictional rules committee in place of the current Civil Procedure Rules, which will still apply to other cases.

Briggs LJ also sets out the appropriate appeals procedure, where permission would apply. Stage 3, the final adjudication, will be made by judges on paper, via a video/telephone hearing or by way of a traditional trial.

When implemented it should be dealing with “straightforward” money claims valued at up to £25,000. Despite this initial ceiling of £25,000, he suggests it may “pave the way” for change over “much wider ground” and will eventually become compulsory. It is not envisaged that the Online Court will apply to fast and multi-track personal injury cases, but, as Briggs LJ has previously indicated, it may apply to small claims track cases.

Recommendations are made on helping people who need assistance with online systems. Complex and important cases are to be transferred upwards to higher courts. Open justice and transparency issues are to be addressed.

Legal advice and expertise would be by way of unbundled solicitors’ services and direct access to barristers.

A target date of 2020 has been suggested.

2. Digitisation

The Online Court proposed is to be accessible via smart phones and tablets.To avoid duplication and “a parallel paper path”, Briggs LJ has endorsed the development of Assisted Digital resources and proposes the “digitisation of all the processes” of the civil courts, which will eventually be paperless.

Reforms have already been implemented to overcome the chronic workload and backlog of the Court of Appeal.

3. Case Officers

A senior body of court lawyers and other officials who can assist with certain functions currently carried out by judges, such as paperwork and uncontentious matters. To be trained and supervised by judges, and decisions subject to reconsideration by judges on request by a party. To operate independently of government when exercising their functions, transferring some of judges’ more routine and non-contentious work to case officers, under judicial training and supervision.

4. Increase in High Court threshold

A substantial increase in the minimum claim value threshold for commencing claims in the High Court – initially to £250,000 and subsequently to £500,000.

5. Enforcement of Judgments and Orders

There should be a single court as the default court for the enforcement of the judgments and orders of all the civil courts (including the new Online Court). This should be the County Court, but there would need to be a “permeable membrane” allowing appropriate enforcement issues to be transferred to the High Court, and special provision for the enforcement of arbitration awards, in accordance with current practice and procedure. All enforcement procedures to be digitised, centralised and rationalised.

6. Mediation/ADR

Re-establish a court-based out of hours private mediation service in County Court hearing centres prepared to participate, along the lines of the service which existed prior to the establishment and then termination of the National Mediation Helpline.

7. Deployment of Judges

The principle should be that no case is too big to be resolved in the regions. The current acute shortage of Circuit judges specialising in civil work in the County Court needs an urgent remedy.

8. Number of Courts and Future of the Divisions

There should be no general unification of the civil courts (ie combining the High Court and County Court). The time has come for a decision about the future of the High Court’s Divisions, but that is beyond the scope of the current review.

9. District Registries and Regional High Court Trial Centres

The concept of the District Registry as a place for the issue of High Court proceedings will eventually be replaced by a single Portal for the issue of all civil proceedings, and should then be abolished.

10. Routes of Appeal

There should in due course be a review of the question whether the recent reforms to the procedure of the Court of Appeal should be extended to cover appeals to the High Court and to Circuit Judges in the County Court, based upon better time and motion evidence than is currently available, and in the light of experience of the reforms in the Court of Appeal.

11. Boundaries between jurisdictions – the Family Court should be given a shared jurisdiction (with the Chancery Division and the County Court) for dealing with Inheritance Act and disputes about co-ownership of homes. There continues to be a case for convergence between the Employment Tribunal (and Employment Appeal Tribunal) and the civil courts, but the detail is a matter beyond the scope of this review.

Lord Justice Briggs said:

“It is for others to decide which of the above recommendations should be implemented, and by what means. In my view, if they are all substantially implemented, then the essentially high quality of the civil justice service provided by the courts of England and Wales will be greatly extended to a silent community to whom it is currently largely inaccessible, and both restored and protected against the weaknesses and threats which currently affect it.”

Comment

The stated aim of the reforms is laudable; to ensure our civil justice system is fit for purpose and open to all. However, this needs to be viewed in the context of enormous court fee increases e.g. last year’s issue fee increases of up to 600% in some cases, and last month’s application fee increases as follows:

  • contested applications made on notice — £255 (from £155)
  • applications without notice or by consent — £100 (from £50)

In Briggs LJ’s view, the new court, if successful, “may pave the way for fundamental changes in the conduct of civil litigation over much wider ground than is currently contemplated by its first stage ambition”.

The proposed timing for the launch of the system is April 2020, although Briggs LJ acknowledges that this will represent “a real challenge”.

The civil courts have come under increasing strain due to budget cuts and the phenomena of a large rise of litigants in person, the latter unpredicted and itself due to previous reforms and cost cutting exercises. This, combined with the lack of any significant positive track record in computerisation of government services represent significant further challenges, as do the requirement for such changes to be adequately funded and given sufficient Parliamentary and Ministry of Justice attention.

The ongoing hikes in court fees and previous termination of funding for Mediation initiatives contrast with the aspiration of increased access to justice and suggested allocation of funds from the Treasury for such a wide-ranging programme of reform.The challenge now lies in effective implementation of Lord Justice Briggs’ recommendations, and avoiding further reductions in access to justice.

First Published: 5.8.16 http://social.luptonfawcett.com/blog/civil-courts-structure-review-final-report

 

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Negligent Financial Advice Claim: “Bolam Test” Abandoned

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Professional Negligence

In O’Hare and another v Coutts & Co [2016] EWHC 2224 (QB) (9 September 2016) the High Court held that the defendant bank had not breached its duty (in contract and in tort) to exercise reasonable skill and care when advising the claimants on making certain investments. Kerr J dismissed the claim in its entirety, although not without considerable sympathy for the claimants, considering that he preferred their evidence where it conflicted with Coutts’.

The judge decided that Coutts had not breached its duty (in contract and in tort) to ascertain the claimants’ requirements and objectives and to advise, explain and inform the claimants about investments that were suitable.

The decision is of particular interest regarding the judge’s approach to

  • Professional negligence / breach of duty
  • Damages in contract and tort
  • Evidence of the professionals involved – including attendance notes

Duty of Care

The judge held that the Bolam test did not apply to the issue of whether the defendant had breached its duty of care when advising the claimants about the investments. Instead, he preferred the approach of the Supreme Court in the Scottish medical negligence case of Montgomery v Lanarkshire Health Board [2015] UKSC 11. The judge focused on what the claimant, as an informed investor would expect to be told.

The judge did not adopt the common Bolam Test (see below) i.e. whether the defendant had advised in accordance with a practice accepted as proper by a responsible body of persons skilled in the giving of financial advice. The judge was influenced in his decision by the fact that the expert evidence indicated that there was little consensus in the industry about how to manage the risk appetite of clients. The decision suggests that the giving of investment advice is not simply an exercise of professional skill; an informed investor, like a medical patient, is entitled to decide the risks that he is willing to take and has to take responsibility for his own mistakes.

The Bolam test

The Bolam test derives from the decision in Bolam v Friern Hospital Management Committee [1957] 2 All ER 118 ( www.practicallaw.com/D-016-0979) . In that case it was held that a doctor was not necessarily negligent if he conformed to a practice accepted as proper by some responsible members of his profession, even if other members would have taken a different view. Evidence of an accepted practice must be responsible and reasonable. In other words, provided the doctor explained the risks of a given treatment, to the extent that it accorded with a responsible body of medical opinion, liability would not attach. The Bolam test applies to all professional liability cases.

The Bolam test was approved by the House of Lords in Sidaway v Board of Governors of the Bethlem Royal Hospital and the Maudsley Hospital [1985] AC 871.

The Montgomery Test

In Montogmery v Lanarkshire Health Board [2015] UKSC 11, the Supreme Court held that Sidaway (and, therefore, the Bolam test) did not reflect the reality and complexity of the way in which healthcare services were provided. It held that an adult person of sound mind was entitled to decide which, if any, of the available forms of treatment to undergo, and her consent had to be obtained before treatment interfering with her bodily integrity was undertaken. Doctors were under a duty to take reasonable care to ensure that patients were aware of any material risks involved in any recommended treatment, and of any reasonable alternative or variant treatments. The court defined materiality as:

“…whether, in the circumstances of the particular case, a reasonable person in the patient’s position would be likely to attach significance to the risk, or the doctor is or should be aware that the particular patient would be likely to attach significance to it…”

This is only when the medical professional has taken reasonable care to ensure that the patient was aware of the material risks involved in any recommended treatment, and of any reasonable alternative or variant treatments.

Decision in O’Hare

In the O’Hare’s negligent financial advice claim against Coutts, Kerr J preferred and applied the approach taken in the case of Montgomery, namely the onus is on the patient or client, as an adult with sound mind, to make their own decision about the risks involved. The O’Hares, as informed investors, were entitled to decide the risks that they were prepared to take and accept responsibility if those risks did not pay off. This standard is now likely apply more generally in financial advice claims.

The judge referred to the FCA’s Conduct of Business Sourcebook (COBS rules) which do not rule out the use of persuasion. The need for full information to be given is emphasised, and conflicts of interest to be properly managed:

“…As I read the authorities and the COBS regulatory scheme, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a private banker using persuasive techniques to induce a client to take risks the client would not take but for the banker’s powers of persuasion, provided the client can afford to take the risks and shows himself willing to take them, and provided the risks are not – avoiding the temptation to use hindsight – so high as to be foolhardy. The authorities include mention of the adviser sometimes having to save the client from himself, but also of the principle that investors take responsibility for their investment decisions including mistaken ones. The duty of care must reflect a balance between those two propositions, which pull in opposite directions…”

Damages in contract and tort

A duty can be owed both in contract and in tort and concurrent duties of care are routinely owed by professionals (Henderson v Merrett Syndicates Ltd [1994] UKHL 5 ( www.practicallaw.com/D-000-1263) ). Accordingly, a financial advisor, who fails to exercise reasonable care in providing services to the client who retains him, can render himself liable in contract and in tort, unless tort liability is specifically excluded.

The general aim of an award of damages in tort is to put the injured party in the same position as he would have been in if the tort had not occurred. Damages in tort aim to restore the claimant to his pre-incident position. Generally, the purpose of an award of damages for breach of contract is to compensate the injured party. The general rule is that damages are meant to place the claimant in the same position as if the contract had been performed. Damages are usually awarded for expectation loss (loss of a bargain) or reliance loss (wasted expenditure).

Not all losses caused (in the factual/ “but for” sense) by a breach of contract or breach of duty are recoverable by the innocent party from the party in breach. Remoteness of damage refers to the principle by which the law determines which consequences caused by the defendant’s breach are within the scope of the defendant’s responsibility and should be brought into account.

There is a difference between the principle of remoteness in contract and in tort. In contract, generally, all foreseeable but not unlikely losses are recoverable. In tort, all losses that are reasonably foreseeable as liable to happen, even in the most unusual case, are recoverable. In Wellesley Partners LLP v Withers LLP [2015] EWCA Civ 1146 ( www.practicallaw.com/D-035-2377) , the Court of Appeal held that in cases of concurrent liability in contract and in tort, the narrower principle of remoteness of damage in contract applies.

Witness evidence

The Civil Evidence Act 1995 (CEA 1995) effectively abolished the rule against hearsay evidence in civil proceedings. In assessing the weight to be given to any hearsay evidence, the court is to have regard to any circumstances from which any inference can reasonably be drawn as to the reliability or otherwise of the evidence. The general rule is that any fact which needs to be proved by the evidence of a witness is proved by either:

  1. Written evidence at an interim application.
  2. Oral evidence at trial.

In Gestmin SGPS SA v Credit Suisse (UK) Ltd [2013] EWHC 3560 (Comm), Leggatt J analysed the approach that a judge should take when faced with evidential discrepancies between recent and sworn witness statements prepared with the help of lawyers and evidence in the form of contemporaneous electronic stored information. After emphasising the unreliability of human memory, he said that the best approach for a judge to adopt was:

“…to place little if any reliance at all on witnesses’ recollections of what was said in meetings and conversations, and to base factual findings on inferences drawn from the documentary evidence and known or probable facts. This does not mean that oral testimony serves no useful purpose – though its utility is often disproportionate to its length. But its value lies largely, as I see it, in the opportunity which cross-examination affords to subject the documentary record to critical scrutiny and to gauge the personality, motivations and working practices of a witness, rather than in testimony of what the witness recalls of particular conversations and events…”

Absence of key defence witness

Mr Shone, the O’Hares’ main contact and relationship manager did not provide evidence in court. Instead, Coutts relied upon the contemporaneous (attendance) notes written by Mr Shone. Given that Mr Shone was alleged to have persuaded the O’Hares to take a higher risk than they would otherwise have done, the judge had expected to hear direct evidence from the advisor.

Although Coutts provided hearsay evidence from other witnesses, which was accepted, the judge concluded that Mr Shone’s testimony was necessary for Coutts to prove its defence. Coutts explained that the reason for Mr Shone’s absence was that he was no longer employed by them and had told the defendant that he was too preoccupied with other business responsibilities to devote time to the current proceedings. Why the witness summons procedure to secure his attendance at trial was not adopted is not examined.

The judge devoted a significant part of his judgment to address the difference between the parties about whether the claimants had been led and persuaded by Mr Shone to take a higher risk than they would otherwise have done. It was significant that Coutts did not adduce any direct evidence from Shone. If he was not called at trial, “…he would plainly be the Banquo’s ghost at the feast…”

Mr Shone’s hearsay evidence was derived from his contemporary notes of various meetings and conversations with the claimants. This evidence was recited in the statements of witnesses called to give oral testimony at trial. The judge held that the hearsay evidence was admissible and that by setting it out in the statements of its witnesses, the defendant had complied with the requirement in CPR 33.2, that hearsay evidence is to be served in a written statement. It was for the claimants to apply under CPR 33.4 to call Mr Shone for the purpose of cross-examining him on his notes of the various meetings and telephone calls, but they did not do so. Instead, the claimants relied on the fact that Mr O’Hare gave oral evidence at trial and his evidence was in many cases uncontradicted by any other witness at trial.

The judge assessed the weight to be given to the evidence by reference to the factors in section 4(1) of the CEA 1995. He concluded that the defendant needed Mr Shone’s testimony to assist its defence and without him, significant parts of the claimants’ account remained uncontradicted, except by notes that were disputed and not defended by their maker. In the circumstances, the judge was not prepared to accept that the notes were to be preferred, or that Mr O’Hare’s evidence contradicting them was to be rejected.

In this case Mr O’Hare’s oral evidence at trial, that Mr Shone had used persuasion on the claimants to induce them to take higher risks /that than they otherwise would have done, was accepted by the judge over and above the documentary evidence. He asserted that the judge in Gestmin had not suggested that oral testimony served no purpose. He remained of the view that the general rule (that any fact which needs to be proved by the evidence of witnesses is to be proved at trial, by their oral evidence) still applies.

Comment

  • The decision emphasises that undocumented witness evidence can be important. The reliability of contemporaneous documents is generally preferred to uncorroborated recollections, but there are occasions where oral testimony is required to support such documents.
  • The decision is of particular interest because of the approach of the judge to breach of duty. He held that the Bolam test did not apply to the issue of whether the defendant had breached its duty of care when advising the claimants about the investments. Instead, the judge preferred the approach of the Supreme Court in the Scottish medical negligence case of Montgomery v Lanarkshire Health Board [2015] UKSC 11. The judge focused on what the claimant, as an “informed investor”, would expect to be told and not on whether the defendant had advised in accordance with a practice accepted as proper by a responsible body of persons skilled in the giving of financial advice.
  • The judge was clearly influenced in his decision by the fact that the expert evidence in the case indicated that there was little consensus in the industry about how to manage the risk appetite of clients.
  • The decision suggests that the giving of investment advice is not simply an exercise of professional skill; an informed investor, like a medical patient, is entitled to decide the risks that he is willing to take and has to take responsibility for his own mistakes.
  • Finally, the judge’s obiter (non binding) comments are also of interest: that, if the negligence claim had succeeded, he would not have allowed the claimants to benefit from the more generous measure of damages in tort, in circumstances where their concurrent claim in contract was statute-barred.

First Published 20 September 2016 – http://social.luptonfawcett.com/blog/negligent-financial-advice-claim-bolam-test-abandoned

 

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New Professional Negligence Pilot: Adjudication

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Scheme launched 1 February 2015

Adjudication is a form of ADR (Alternative Dispute Resolution). A new voluntary scheme is being piloted aimed at professional negligence claims of less than £100,000 (excluding costs). This is of particular interest in solicitors’ negligence claims.

The objective is to see if claims can be resolved without the issue of Civil Court proceedings. There would be a substantial likely saving in terms of costs to all parties, time, and court resources. This is particularly apt in view of the forthcoming hike in Civil Court Issue fees.

The Adjudication process is aimed at any professional negligence claim, whether wholly or in part.

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Key advantages of Adjudication

  1. It is possible to obtain a reasoned judgment enforceable in Court for much lower cost than using Court proceedings.
  2. The scheme can work with the pre action protocol claim and response letters as submissions from the parties.
  3. The PNBA  (Professional Negligence Bar Association) have appointed a panel of 5 adjudicators for the pilot, all with many years of experience in this type of claim on standard terms of business and cost.
  4. The scheme itself is designed as a precedent which can be adapted by agreement for individual cases – adaptations agreed will be useful in assessing the feedback.
  5. Interlocutory points/preliminary issues could be adjudicated if a barrier to other forms of ADR like mediation and/or as a cheaper and quicker alternative to Court hearings.
  6. The meeting and process could be agreed as similar to mediations at similar cost.

The adjudication pilot is appropriate where the claimant seeks damages or compensation in a professional negligence claim with a financial value. The scheme and terms of business can be used or adapted for any case even if the parties do not wish to provide feedback or take part in the pilot. The pilot scheme details are being circulated to PNLA (Professional Negligence Lawyers Association), ABI (Association of British Insurers) and PNBA members.

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The introduction from Mr Justice Ramsey as approved by the Ministry of Justice provides the background. The Judge is looking for 3 pilot cases with feedback by June:

‘I am pleased to say that the Ministry of Justice have agreed to be involved in these discussions and to consider whether, as a result further steps might be taken to include adjudication of professional negligence claims as part of civil procedure or take other steps to introduce ways to minimise the costs and costs exposure of those who wish to bring professional negligence claims.’

Feedback is being administered on a neutral basis by Masood Ahmed of Leicester University in consultation with the Ministry of Justice

http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/law/people/masood-ahmed

Limits to Adjudication

Adjudication is one of the many forms of alternative dispute resolution, such as mediation, arbitration, conciliation, negotiation, mini trial, expert determination etc.

Adjudication could have an important role to play.  It is derived from the statutory provisions which apply to construction contracts.  Adjudication allows a person with specialist knowledge in a particular field to provide a temporarily binding decision on the merits of a dispute within a short time and at minimum expense.

Experience has shown that, whilst parties can then seek to have a final determination of the dispute in the Courts, they often do not do so.  In the vast majority of  cases they accept the adjudication or use it as a means of settling the dispute.

In his introduction to the pilot scheme (which is also monitored by the Ministry of Justice) Mr Justice Ramsay explains that some practitioners consider that adjudication is particularly appropriate in resolving disputes in professional negligence cases where, without some independent decision on the merits, the parties may not be able to resolve their dispute.  The fact that the decision is temporarily binding means that the parties are not finally bound by the decision, but clearly a decision by a specialist adjudicator has to be given great importance in deciding whether to seek a finally binding decision in litigation through the Civil Courts.

The aim of the pilot scheme is that it shall run until 3 cases have been adjudicated, and the relevant feedback has been analysed.  The Ministry of Justice is to be involved in the subsequent review and to consider whether, as a result further steps might be taken to include adjudication of professional negligence claims as part of civil procedure accross the board, or to consider other ways to minimise the costs and costs exposure of potential claimants in professional negligence disputes.

If the scheme proves to be popular, and as a potential route to reduce costs and delay, other claimants and parties are likely to be interested in participating in adjudication of professional negligence claims, outside of the pilot scheme.

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