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Should a litigant in person get special treatment? Update

In the recent case of Reynard v Fox, the High Court struck out a claim brought by a litigant in person and cited the recent Supreme Court decision in Barton v Wright Hassall. 

The court rejected the claimant's submission that this would be unjust because as a litigant in person, he did not have a detailed knowledge of the insolvency regulations. It ruled that the relevant regulations were not hard to find, difficult to understand or ambiguous.

Background

The claimant and defendant (his trustee in bankruptcy) had been involved in various legal proceedings for a number of years. In the present case, the claimant issued a claim for breach of contract and negligence in relation to the defendant's conduct during the course of the bankruptcy.

In response, the defendant applied to have the claim struck out, arguing that it was issued in breach of a previous order, disclosed no grounds for bringing a claim and was an abuse of the court’s process because it re-litigated a number of issues that had been covered in prior proceedings between the parties.

Cause of action

The court decided that the claim ought to have been brought under s304 of the Insolvency Act 1986. In order to bring the claim under s304, the claimant required the court's permission, which he did not seek until after proceedings had been issued.

The court decided that the claimant had not sought permission properly and so the effect of his request, if granted, would have been to deny the defendant the opportunity to file evidence in support of his position.

Litigant in person

The claimant argued that it would be unfair to strike the claim out for failure to bring it under s304 because he was a litigant in person and "didn't have a detailed knowledge of insolvency regulations".

The court referred to the recent Supreme Court decision in Barton v Wright Hassall in which it was decided that litigants in person ought not to be able to avoid procedural rules, unless a rule is particularly hard to find, difficult to understand or ambiguous. The court decided that this was not the case with s304.

The court also remarked that there was “no injustice arising merely from the fact that the claimant was a litigant in person”, describing him as an “intelligent and articulate litigant, who has learned a great deal about insolvency law in particular and civil law and procedure in general”.

The court noted that the claimant's unrepresented status would not assist him in resisting a strike out application under CPR 3.4(2) because the rules do not seek to punish the claimant. Instead, the power to strike out is based on whether it is unsustainable or unfair to proceed with a claim.

The judge summarised: “you cannot successfully claim that an apple is an orange, on the grounds that you do not know the difference because you are a litigant in person. Defendants also have rights, including the right not to be made liable for causes of action which do not lie against them”.

Comment

This case confirms that the courts will not allow litigants in person to benefit from flexibility on procedural rules if this would produce an unfair result. This is especially the case where that flexibility is sought in relation to procedural requirements that are not hard to find, difficult to understand or ambiguous.

This publication is intended for general guidance and represents our understanding of the relevant law and practice as at March 2018. Specific advice should be sought for specific cases. For more information see our terms & conditions.

 

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