Published: 2nd September 2016
A litigant in person has been ordered to pay almost £100,000 in costs for a committal application against a private client lawyer in what has been described as a 'farrago of nonsense', highlighting the chaos that the judiciary can face in cases involving litigants in person.
The ruling, handed out by Judge and President of the Family Division Sir James Munby, was based on 'scurrilous' and 'fatuous' allegations against lawyer Frances Hughes and her law firm made by a Mr Desmond Fitzgerald. Hughes sought a total of £101,995 in costs on an indemnity basis, based on the two claims Mr Fitzgerald had made against the firm. Sir James Munby agreed to the indemnity approach but revised the amount to the total of £92,000.
Litigants in person are often made aware of the potential for escalating costs when choosing to pursue unreasonable litigation, especially with the removal of legal aid. As Hughes explained: 'Litigants in person often cause mayhem in the courts, but even worse there can be terrible consequences financially for these litigants.'
She continued: 'Judges are being told they must give litigants in person a chance but it's almost always inevitably an unhappy outcome for litigants who are not clear about a process which is complicated and that they don't really understand.'
Mr Fitzgerald made his first application after Senior Judge Denzil Lush appointed a deputy to look after the property and affairs of his aunt, following an assessment to determine her capacity to manage her own affairs. Mr Fitzgerald objected to the appointment of the deputy and, in particular, to the law firm chosen to act for his aunt and to the assessment on his aunt's capacity.
At the time of his judgement, Lush said: 'The persistence with which he kept filing application notices, if not intentionally designed to disrupt and derail the litigation process, almost succeeded in having that effect.'
'What I find so depressing is that the case highlights the difficulties increasingly encountered by the judiciary at all levels when dealing with litigants in person. Two problems in particular are revealed. The first is to bring order to the chaos which litigants in person invariably – and wholly understandably – manage to create in putting forward their claims and defences.'
He continued: 'Judges should not have to micro-manage cases, coaxing and cajoling the parties to focus on the issues that need to be resolved.'
Mr Fitzgerald was criticised by Sir James Munby for his objection to the deputy's appointment, describing it as 'utterly unreasonable' and highlighting that this was ultimately responsible for 'the grotesque driving up of costs'. Mr Fitzgerald appealed SJ Lush's cost order of £127,465.59 and whilst he allowed the appeal, Sir James Munby agreed with SJ Lush's decision and confirmed a restraint order for two years against Mr Fitzgerald.
Sir James Munby concluded: 'Those who have been harried by Mr Fitzgerald are entitled to be protected. The court is entitled to protect itself, its process and, indeed, other litigants from having so much of its time taken up – wasted – by Mr Fitzgerald.'
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