Introduction

Summary judgment refers to a process where judgment is given in a case at an early stage, without a full litigation process and without the need for a full trial.  It is confined to specific circumstances. A plaintiff can apply for summary judgment where a defendant has entered an appearance or delivered a defence.  Summary judgment is most commonly granted where the defendant has no bona fide defence to the claim made by the plaintiff. 

Summary judgment differs from the Summary Summons procedure which is specifically provided for under the Rules of the Superior Courts (“RSC”). Although both facilitate an expedited process by which a plaintiff can obtain judgment, the RSC prescribe the limited class of proceedings that can be initiated by way of Summary Summons. Such proceedings include actions for debts or liquidated sums and claims for the taking of an account [1]. On the other hand, depending on the particular circumstances, summary judgment may be available in plenary proceedings. Plenary proceedings are initiated by a Plenary Summons and usually involve further pleadings and a hearing on oral evidence. 

This note, the first of a two-part update, looks at a recent High Court decision granting summary judgment in plenary proceedings, outside the normal circumstances. The second-part of the update focuses on the Summary Summons procedure, concentrating on significant recent Supreme Court decisions in the area, one of which clarifies the particulars required to be pleaded in Summary Summons proceedings.  

Summary judgment, a shift in application?

A recent High Court decision suggests, at first glance, a broadening of the cases in which summary judgment may be granted.  In Shawl Property Investments Limited v Malone and Walsh [2], (“Shawl Properties”) the first defendant borrowed just over €8 million from EBS in 2005 to buy eight residential properties in Dublin, including two houses which formed the subject matter of these proceedings (the “Properties”). The first defendant subsequently failed to meet his obligations to the lender.  In 2018, following an assignment of the loan and security to Beltany Property Finance DAC (“Beltany”), the Properties were sold by Beltany to the plaintiff.   Shortly after, the first defendant broke into the Properties and changed the locks.   

The plaintiff instituted plenary proceedings seeking declarations that the defendants had no estate, interest or title in the Properties.  The plaintiff also sought permanent injunctions restraining interference with the Properties.  The gravamen of the defendants’ defence was that the first defendant or his former partner were the owner(s) of the Properties. 

  • Application for summary judgment: the test

The plaintiff issued a motion seeking summary judgment, after a defence was filed.  It was acknowledged by Counsel for the plaintiff that applications for summary judgment other than in respect of claims for debts or liquidated sums are unusual. In considering the application, Allen J (High Court) referred to the well-established test in applications for summary judgments i.e. it must be clear that the defendant has no defence on the facts or the law.  In relation to factual evidence put forward by the defendant, subject only to very limited circumstances, the court must for the purpose of its analysis, accept those facts as being true.  The limited circumstances where the court does not have to accept the defendant’s assertions of fact are where they “amount to a mere assertion unsupported either by evidence….or which are in themselves contradictory and inconsistent with uncontested documentation”. Where it comes to questions of law, the court should only resolve those where they are straightforward and where no risk of injustice to the parties arises [3].

Allen J applied these principles to the facts and issues of law put forward by the defendants.  He dismissed the various grounds of defence, including the assertion that the bankruptcy of the first defendant in 2017 extinguished the loan facilities, such that there was nothing to transfer to Beltany.  Technical issues raised as points of defence in relation to the deeds of sale were also dismissed.  The only disputed fact according to Allen J, was whether Beltany was in possession of the properties at the time of conveyance to the plaintiff. The court ruled that even if Beltany was not in possession that did not invalidate the sale, because a statutory power of sale is not dependent on a mortgagee being in possession.  Accordingly, there was no issue of fact or law which, even accepting the defendants’ assertions of fact, could afford the defendants a defence to the claims. It followed that a trial was not warranted and so the declaratory and injunctive relief was granted to the plaintiff.     

  • Analysis

Whilst the decision of Allen J is notable, it is not novel in that it follows the jurisprudence, including an earlier finding of Kelly J in Abbey International Finance Ltd v Point Ireland Helicopters Ltd[ 4] that the court has an inherent jurisdiction to grant summary judgment in plenary proceedings for unliquidated sums where the defendant has no defence. 

Conclusion

The summary judgment process when properly invoked in cases where there is clearly no defence, facilitates the attainment of early resolution of the issues and justice between the parties.   Shawl Properties is a helpful albeit uncommon, illustration of the effective use of summary judgment in plenary proceedings, avoiding prolonged hearings, discovery and increased costs.