Overview of the two decisions

Wiseman v Marston's plc

The claimant's solicitors issued proceedings stating the value of the claim on the claim form was £50,000 and the corresponding court fee was paid. The Judge's view was that the true value of the claim was at least £200,000 and a higher court fee was due.

Lewis and others v Ward Hadaway

The claimants' solicitors, Robinson Murphy (RM) had stated on all but one of several similar claims issued that they were seeking £15,000 or less in damages and the corresponding court fees were all paid. All the claims were subsequently amended post issue (and in some cases after limitation had passed) and just prior to service, to claim larger sums. Subsequently, the larger corresponding court fees were paid. Click here for an article that includes analysis of Lewis v Ward Hadaway.

Analysis

In the case of Wiseman, the claimant's solicitors' conduct was not held to be abusive. As soon as they had received Counsel's advice on quantum an application for permission to amend the claim form was promptly made so the proper value would be entered and the correct court fee paid. The initial value entered on the claim form was a genuine, albeit incorrect, attempt to value the claim.

In sharp contrast, the conduct of RM was determined to be an abuse. The court held that RM deliberately undervalued the claims in order either to avoid/defer payment of the appropriate court fee. It was also held that RM always intended to amend their claims as shown by the pre-action letters which stated that the claims were expected to run into the hundreds of thousands of pounds.

RW's actions deprived the court system of fees which were rightly due and unnecessarily increased the Court's workload in relation to having to amend the claims. This conduct was not in keeping with the parties' duty to assist the court in the overriding objective of dealing with cases in a just, proportionate and cost effective manner. Further, RM had repeated conduct that they had been criticised for in previous cases.

A further finding was that some of the claims were issued as a cynical protective step due to the imminent expiry of limitation. The sole objective was to buy RM's clients an additional 4 months (the period of validity of the claim form after issue) to consider their positions.

Conclusion

Where there is no evidence of deliberate wrongdoing, errors in misstating the value of the claim on the claim form and the payment of the wrong court fee are capable of correction. This was the case in Wiseman.

But where a claim has been deliberately undervalued for a party's own convenience and there is evidence that the party always intended to pursue the claim to full value by amending it at a later date then such conduct may be held to be an abuse of process, as in Lewis.

Wiseman v Marston's plc (unreported), 21 December 2016, (County Court at Sheffield) & Lewis and others v Ward Hadaway (A Firm) [2015] EWHC 3503 (Ch)