Court: It is not fair for a lawyer to serve court processes on empty locked-down office

A claimant solicitor who posted papers to an empty office at the height of the lockdown exercised ‘poor judgement’, a High Court judge has said.

Mr Justice Julian Knowles granted the defendant in Stanley v London Borough of Tower Hamlets relief from sanctions and overturned a decision to grant judgment against the council in default.

The court heard that the claimant’s solicitor, named as Mr McConville, had posted particulars of claim on 25 March – two days after the UK went into lockdown – knowing the council had to acknowledge service by 9 April.

But in line with government guidance, the council offices were effectively closed to all but a handful of staff, none of whom had the relevant knowledge to identify urgent litigation documents.

The judge said the council, the defendant in a £10,000 data protection claim, would have responded in time in normal circumstances and moved promptly to act once it was aware of the claim. This was despite the judge noting the local authority having shown ‘something of a cavalier attitude’ during correspondence prior to lockdown.

The judge stated that McConville had not unscrupulously taken advantage of the situation but was at fault for not checking whether service by post was still possible and feasible. Opposing solicitors had accused him of ‘sharp practice’ by issuing when he did.

Knowles said: ‘The world shifted on its axis on 23 March 2020 and it was incumbent on [McConville] as a responsible solicitor and an officer of the court to contact the council to acknowledge that the situation had changed, and to discuss how proceedings could best and most effectively be served.

‘A moment’s thought on his part would have shown that it was not fair or reasonable for him simply to place papers in the post to an office that he knew or should have known had been closed down two days before because of a national emergency.’

The judge acknowledged the need to enforce compliance with the rules and to conduct litigation at proportionate cost, but said it was ‘unconscionable’ for the claimant to benefit from the Covid-19 crisis.

He set aside the judgment in default, granted relief from sanctions, and gave permission to the council to file and serve an acknowledgement of service and defence within 14 days.
Law gazette

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