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Lord Neuberger to investigate after High Court takes 22 months to deliver judgment

3 May 2011

The Master of the Rolls has promised to investigate whether more “robust and effective” procedures are needed after a “gross delay” of 22 months at the High Court between the end of a hearing and delivery of the judgment.

Lord Neuberger said judges should be “more ready than they have been actively to manage hearings which are starting to run beyond their time estimates” or in a way disproportionate to the issues.

“An unjustifiable delay in giving judgment has a number of undesirable consequences,” he said. “It leaves the parties in a state of uncertainty for a longer time than can be justified. Whatever the issues at stake, such a delay is plainly wrong in principle and practice.

“Such a delay also inevitably undermines confidence in the reliability of the delayed judgment, which is bad in itself, and serves to undermine confidence in the judiciary generally.

“Further, it will often lead to an appellate court entertaining, and sometimes allowing, an appeal when it would otherwise not have done so, which in turn means increased cost delay and uncertainty.”

Lord Neuberger said he doubted whether permission to appeal would have been granted if there had not been such a “gross delay” in handing down judgment.

He was ruling in Bond v Dunster Properties and others [2011] EWCA Civ 455, a commercial dispute between a father and son, Grahame Bond senior and Grahame Bond junior, over a property development in Chelsea Harbour.

The court heard that proceedings began with the issue of a claim by Bond senior in 2005 for repayment of sums totalling £520,000 from one of his son’s property companies.

Bond junior argued that the sums related to an oral agreement between him and his father to buy and develop a flat in Admiral Court and the money was to be repaid out of the proceeds of sale.

Delivering the leading judgment at the Court of Appeal, Lady Justice Arden said the relationship between father and son “had not been a tranquil one” and they had been involved in property developments together previously that had led to disagreements.

She said trial of the preliminary issues at the High Court in Bristol was originally listed to begin in May 2007, but, after a number of adjournments, the hearing did not conclude until June 2008. Judgment was not delivered by Judge Havelock-Allan until April 2010.

“This extraordinary delay clearly called for an apology and, if any existed, an explanation of the mitigating circumstances,” Arden LJ said. “However, so far as we are aware, there was none.

“Litigation is stressful for the parties, sometimes because they are members of the same family and sometimes because the transactions are commercial in nature and their outcome has implications for other transactions that the parties or others need to carry out. Life has to go on before, during and after litigation.”

Lady Justice Arden said the Court of Appeal had “no reservation in expressing its sympathies for the parties” and that delays of this kind were “lamentable and unacceptable”.

She went on: “The matter goes further than just the effect on the parties. An unreasonable delay of this kind reflects adversely on the reputation and credibility of the civil justice system as a whole, and reinforces the negative images which the public can have of the way judges and lawyers perform their roles.

“If there were regular delays of this order, the rule of law would be undermined.”

However, Arden LJ said it was not the function of the Court of Appeal to impose sanctions or investigate reasons why delays occurred.

She said its function in this case was to consider whether any of the High Court’s findings of fact should be set aside and a retrial ordered. She dismissed the appeal. Lord Neuberger and Lord Justice Longmore, for their own reasons, agreed.

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Wills, Trusts & Probate Courts & Judiciary