Since the defence of fundamental dishonesty was introduced in April 2015, defendants have utilised it as a strategy to persuade claimants to drop or settle their claims.
Section 57 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 provides that a court must dismiss a claimant’s whole claim where it is satisfied that the claimant has been fundamentally dishonest, unless by doing so there would be substantial injustice. This would result in the claimant having to pay the defendant’s costs.
This defence recently failed to deter Carol Ravenscroft in her personal injury claim against Swedish furniture giant Ikea. This is one of the first cases where the fundamental dishonesty defence has been rejected by the court.
On 16 March 2014, teaching assistant Ms Ravenscroft was visiting the Ikea store in Warrington with her daughter and 2-year-old grandson. Whilst they were looking at a bedside table, a mirrored-wardrobe, which had recently been moved by members of the Ikea staff, began to fall in the direction of Ms Ravenscroft and her grandson. Ms Ravenscroft suffered a number of injuries to her wrist, arm, shoulder and neck when she reached out to prevent the wardrobe from landing on her grandson.
Ms Ravenscroft sought legal advice and brought a personal injury claim against Ikea. She was shocked by Ikea’s response when they accused her of being fraudulent and alleged that she was bringing a claim which was fundamentally dishonest. Ikea argued that she had exaggerated the nature of the incident and also the extent of her injuries.
Undeterred by Ikea’s allegations and despite a great deal of stress, Ms Ravenscroft refused to be bullied into dropping her claim and fought her case to trial, which took place in the Manchester County Court.
District Judge Bernadette Stonier did not find fraud on the part of the claimant. She described Ikea as having taken a ‘stance of suspicion rather than sympathy’. Ms Ravenscroft was awarded over £3,500 in damages and interest. Ikea were also ordered to pay an undisclosed amount in legal costs. Following the trial, a spokesman from Ikea said the company regretted that the accident occurred and accepted the ruling.
I find the tactics utilised by Ikea’s representatives throughout this case deplorable. If they had been successful in their defence, not only would Ms Ravenscroft’s legitimate claim have been entirely dismissed, she would also have been left with a £100,000 legal bill. The allegations of dishonesty would have also put her job as a teaching assistant, for children with special needs, at risk.
I admire Ms Ravenscroft’s determination in pursuing her claim all the way to trial. It must have been incredibly difficult for her to have her credibility attacked throughout the legal process, despite her knowing that she was in fact being honest.
Ultimately, justice prevailed in Ms Ravenscroft’s case. However, I would imagine that there are claimants who will have been coerced into dropping or under-settling their claims following undue pressure from defendants. I have certainly seen this tactic being used more often since April 2015.
Only a very small percentage of personal injury claims are in fact fraudulent. Therefore, defendants should not be allowed to get away with making fundamental dishonesty allegations without any substantial grounds for doing so.
Despite winning the case, Ms Ravenscroft did not receive indemnity costs or aggravated damages. I agree with the comments of Ms Ravenscroft’s representative, Martin Littler, who has called for costs penalties for defendants who fail to successfully defend claims on the basis of fundamental dishonesty.
Littler also suggested that the problem will become more severe if the small claims limit for personal injury claims increases to £5,000, as proposed by the government. He added that “parties are expected to operate on a level playing field” and “in cases where the claimant has no representation the defendants will be able to dig up the pitch.”
It is my hope that Ms Ravenscroft will be the first of many genuine claimants to foil the underhand tactics of defendants and ultimately put an end to such spurious accusations, which serve only to undermine this country’s justice system.