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Barton v Wright Hassall LLP: Litigants in person – a not-so-special status

Justices in the Supreme Court have today handed down a crucial judgment [1] regarding whether litigants in person (LiPs) should be granted a special status in civil litigation. The Supreme Court focused particularly on LiPs seeking relief from sanctions for breaching the Civil Procedure Rules and accompanying Practice Directions (the Courts’ Rules) which govern the conduct of litigation in England and Wales.  Rachel Elgar, an Associate specialising in Banking Litigation, explains.

The case

Walker Morris has reported previously on the facts of this case and the Court of Appeal’s decision. In summary, the case revolved around the claimant’s failure to comply with the Courts’ Rules regarding service of a professional negligence claim upon the defendant’s solicitors. The claimant, a LiP, attempted to serve the claim via email without obtaining the defendant’s solicitors’ confirmation that they would accept service in such a way (a step required under the Courts’ Rules). Unfortunately for the claimant, his failure to properly serve the claim meant that the deadline for service had expired and the claim was struck out.

The claimant appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.

The issues

Amongst other things, the Supreme Court considered whether the Court of Appeal erred in upholding the judgment of the courts below that there was no good reason to validate service.

The Justices, in a majority of three to two, dismissed the appeal and decided that there was no good reason to retrospectively validate the claimant’s service of the claim. Regarding the status of the claimant as a LiP, Lord Sumption stated that a LIP’s:

…lack of representation will often justify making allowances in making case management decisions and in conducting hearings. But it will not usually justify applying to [LiPs] a lower standard of compliance with rules or orders of the court… The rules do not in any relevant respect distinguish between represented and unrepresented parties.”

Lord Sumption further confirmed (in his majority view) that:

Unless the rules and practice directions are particularly inaccessible or obscure, it is reasonable to expect a [LiP] to familiarise himself with the rules which apply to any step which he is about to take.

A copy of the Supreme Court’s Judgment can be found here.

WM Comment

The Supreme Court’s decision will be welcome news to legal practitioners, who can be assured that the courts will consider parties’ failures to comply with the Courts’ Rules without regard to whether a party is represented or not. Practitioners also now have clarity that they will not be treated differently by the court when taking steps within the litigation process depending on whether their opponent is a LiP or a represented party.

We would caution legal practitioners and their clients alike, however, that the courts still expect practitioners to assist LiPs in furtherance of the overriding objective and in dealing with cases efficiently and effectively.

For further practical advice and information, please see our earlier briefings: Litigants in person: CPR changes; Litigants in person: Essential new guidelines; and When is a vexatious litigant a good thing?


[1] Barton v Wright Hassall LLP [2018] UKSC 12