The Civil Procedure Rules (CPR) that govern court possession claims allow certain claims for rent or mortgage arrears to be started online through a process known as Possession Claims Online (PCOL). There are several advantages to starting a possession claim through PCOL: the court issue fee is lower and the website can be accessed at any time of the day or week. The rules dealing with PCOL are set out at Practice Direction 55B of the CPR.
As the claim form is completed and submitted electronically there are special rules relating to statements of truth. As with all statements of case, the online claim form must be verified by a statement of truth. The Court rules require a statement of truth to be signed by the party or his litigation friend or the legal representative of the party or litigation friend. PD 55B makes express provision for ‘signing’ an online claim. It states that ‘any provision of the CPR which requires a document to be signed by a person is satisfied by that person entering his name on an online form.’
This requirement was scrutinised recently in the County Court appeal of Kassam v Gill & Gill. In this case the landlords had sought possession of an assured shorthold tenancy on the basis of rent arrears and had engaged an eviction specialist firm ‘Remove a Tenant’ to assist with the possession claim. Remove a Tenant are not solicitors and are not regulated by the SRA. That part of the decision is discussed in more detail here: ‘The Death Knell for Unregulated “Eviction Specialists”?’. A section 8 notice had been served and a possession claim commenced using PCOL.
As part of his judgement, His Honour Judge Worster provided some useful commentary on PCOL and signing statements of truth electronically. The evidence in the case was that both landlords, Mr and Mrs Gill, had attended the offices of Remove a Tenant for the claim form to be completed. An employee of Remove a Tenant filled in the online clam form including typing the Claimants’ names at the start of the form. The online system then automatically reproduced the Claimants’ names in the statement of truth section at the end of the form. One of the Claimants, Mr Gill, had checked the form and clicked the icon to signify agreement with the statement of truth in order to submit the claim. Remove a Tenant’s contact details were provided in the box requiring the Claimant or Claimant’s solicitor’s address.
HHJ Worster did not think this was sufficient to comply with the CPR. Practice Direction 55B clearly states that where a document is required to be signed by a person, that person must enter his name on the online form. That person must be the claimant, his litigation friend or the legal representative. In the current case it was the employee at Remove a Tenant that had entered the Claimants’ names and therefore the employee that had ‘signed’ the statement of truth. Whilst a solicitor can sign a statement of truth on behalf of a client in certain circumstances, a non-regulated representative cannot.
HHJ Worster acknowledged that part of the problem is that the online Claim Form takes the Claimant’s details provided at the start and auto-fills them next to the statement of truth. This, the judge stated, ‘is not a happy fit with the requirements of the rules or the PD.’
The importance of completing a statement of truth correctly should not be underestimated. A failure to verify a statement of case can have very serious consequences for the litigation and the Court has the power to strike out a statement of case which is not verified by a statement of truth. In this case the judge decided not to strike out the landlords’ claim, despite the failure to comply with the Court rules. HHJ Worster was satisfied that as Mr Gill had checked the form and had clicked the statement of truth icon to verify the truth of the form’s contents, in the context of the online process, this met the purpose of the rules.
This case provides a clear reminder that statements of truth must comply with the court rules and therefore need to be considered carefully even when completing an online Claim Form. While the judge in this case refused to strike out the Claimants’ claim, he was satisfied that the Claimants had failed to verify the statement of case exposing them to the possibility of the court striking out their claim. While this is a county court decision and not binding, other landlords who have engaged unregulated eviction specialists may find their claim papers challenged at Court and may be asked to explain who actually signed the statement of truth which could lead to further delay and cost.
In the above case, the tenant also challenged the validity of the section 8 notice served. This issue will be explored in a future post. Possession proceedings remain a highly technical and complex area.