Bates & Ors v Post Office Limited

A High Court Judge has warned the two parties in a group litigation action that “a fundamental change in attitude…is required” and that continued refusal to co-operate would lead to “draconian costs orders”.

The matter of Bates & Ors v Post Office Limited is of over 500 mostly sub-postmasters who are pursuing action against the post office branch operator.  The action stems from claims that a newly implemented but faulty computer system in 1999 that led to the sub-postmasters being wrongly accused of false accounting or theft, which left many with tarnished reputations and having to declare bankruptcy, or even imprisoned as a result.

The first claim was issued in April 2016.  At a recent case management conference, Mr Justice Fraser stated that both sides had rebuffed efforts to manage the case in a cost-effective and efficient way.  Mr Justice Fraser outlined some of the issues that had been faced including:-

  • Failing to respond to directions for two months
  • Failing to even consider e-disclosure questionnaires
  • Failing to lodge required documents with the Court
  • Refusing to disclose obviously relevant documents
  • Threatening ‘pointless’ interlocutory skirmishes

The Judge averred that:

“Such behaviour simply does not begin to qualify as either cost-effective, efficient, or being in accordance with the over-riding objective.  A fundamental change of attitude by the legal advisors involved in this group litigation is required.  A failure to heed this warning will result in draconian costs orders.”

What really appeared to rile Fraser J was the parties’ attitude towards fixing hearing dates.  The first CMC was arranged for October 2017 but clerk for Claimant’s leading Counsel notified the Court that the Hearing could not be accommodated on that day and that the Court would be notified of a date that all Counsel was jointly available once the clerks had agreed this between them.  At the subsequent CMC (held on the original date), the Judge duly ordered the Trial to take place in November 2018 (which again had numerous disagreements between the parties about its suitability, with the Defendant arguing the case could not be heard until at least 2019) but the following day, the Defendant’s leading Counsel asked that the same be moved as he already had Court commitments at the Companies Court.

Mr Justice Fraser commented that

“Fixing Hearings…around the diaries of busy Counsel rather than their fixing their diaries around this case is in my judgment fundamentally the wrong approach” and was a clear case of “the tail wagging the dog”.

It is clear from the above that an obdurate attitude towards the Court and the timetable could affect Solicitor’s and Counsel where it really hurts them – in their pocket.


James May