In a climate where the number of contentious claims are increasing, the importance of ensuring litigants' right to a hearing within a reasonable time is essential. Undue delay, whether on the part of the Plaintiff or Defendant, is a factor which is increasingly used by the courts as a reason to resist various applications and even indeed strike out proceedings.
The High Court recently handed down judgment in the case of Doyle v Gibney¹. This judgment may be of relevance in cases going forward in enabling a Defendant to have a case struck out on the grounds of the Plaintiff's inordinate delay. In summary, the court set aside an order renewing a Plenary Summons in respect of the Second named Defendant, and granted an order to strike out proceedings in respect of the Third named Defendant, where no steps had been undertaken in the proceedings for a period of eleven years.
This case is interesting from an insurer's perspective as the court took into consideration the fact that the Plaintiff was now pursuing a professional negligence action against her former solicitors. This suggested that she had a possibility of recovering damages under her former solicitor's Professional Indemnity Insurance. The court held that this was a factor which significantly mitigated the potential prejudice the Plaintiff would suffer as a result of the proceedings being struck out.
By the time this action was ultimately instituted, eleven years had passed. The Third named Defendant had been restructured during the intervening years and the current members were completely unaware of the claim. Furthermore, the Third named Defendant had no insurance cover to meet a claim of this kind. A number of similar claims had been settled in 2008, at which time the Third named Defendant had also reached a settlement with its insurers in respect of such claims. Had the Third named Defendant known of this existing claim in 2008, it might have been able to factor this issue into the settlement equation. Accordingly, the Third named Defendant argued that it was now prejudiced as its new insurance cover had no retrospective applicability.
The court held that speedy and efficient despatch of civil litigation is an inherent feature of the court's jurisdiction. Hogan J. emphasised the court's duty, pursuant to Article 34.1 of the Constitution, to ensure timely administration of justice and noted that an individual's right to a hearing within a reasonable time is also guaranteed by Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Right².
On the "balance of justice" test, the court held that the prejudice which the Second and Third named Defendants would suffer significantly outweighed the prejudice which would be visited on the Plaintiff by reason of the gross delay which she had not explained.
On the facts of the case, the court held that the delay had been inordinate and no excuse could plausibly be advanced by way of explanation. It was held fundamentally unfair that the Defendants should have to face trial and the balance of justice favoured striking out proceedings against them.