Litigation solicitors up and down the country are no doubt assessing the implications of the latest procedural changes with an eye to their own risk management profile. Of particular importance has been the change to the provisions concerning relief from sanctions under CPR 3.9. The recent decision of Michael v Middleton [2013] EWHC 2881 (Ch) illustrates how tough the courts are becoming in implementing the Jackson reforms. It also raises the possibility of more solicitors’ negligence litigation in the future if caseloads are not managed efficiently.

The case was a dispute between claimant business owners and their solicitor, the defendant. A key issue was how the defendant was to be paid, the defendant’s account being that he was to be given an interest in the claimants’ business as part of his remuneration.

The claimants issued proceedings but failed to provide satisfactory disclosure and, in 2012, the claim was struck out for non-compliance with an `unless’ order. Approximately one year later (2013) the claimants instructed new solicitors but then waited for several months before finally issuing an application for relief from sanctions under CPR 3.9.

It was accepted by the parties that the struck-out claim was not time-barred and that the claimants had been badly let down by their first solicitors. It was also in issue whether the second solicitors had unreasonably delayed in issuing the application for relief.

HHJ David Cooke refused the claimants’ application for relief and stated that granting relief would ‘send a wrong message`. As part of his decision, he focussed on two specific aims of CPR 3.9 – conducting litigation efficiently and saving costs, and enforcing compliance with orders. Of particular relevance here, the Judge considered and rejected the submission that any claimant, who was denied relief, was bound to be disadvantaged by having to sue his solicitor instead.

On the Judge’s findings, it was still open to the claimants to bring a fresh claim against the defendant, without being met either by limitation or abuse of process arguments. Nevertheless the implications of this decision are that the courts are going to adopt a less pragmatic approach to applications for relief. Instead of granting relief on the (unspoken) basis that there is little point in forcing a claimant to re-start the litigation, they are going to adopt a tough approach with potentially far-reaching consequences for any solicitor having conduct of the litigation at any stage.