In a withering attack on what he terms “the emasculation of legal aid” and the inevitable increase in unrepresented litigants in the English courts, Lord Justice Ward in the Court of Appeal has suggested that it may be time to review the rule in Halsey v Milton Keynes General NHS Trust [2004] EWCA Civ 576 prohibiting a court from ordering unwilling parties to refer their dispute to mediation. In this regard, the Court of Appeal addressed the power of the courts to order a stay for mediation to be attempted other than at the allocation stage under CPR 26.4(2)(b):  Wright v. Wright [2013] EWCA CIV 234 Court of Appeal 27 March 2013

Background

The case concerned a dispute between two unrepresented litigants, formerly successful business partners, who had fallen out and were pursuing litigation with a vengeance.  Despite being, in Ward LJ’s words, “intelligent and not unsuccessful businessmen”, the parties steadfastly refused to mediate despite the continued encouragement of the trial judge, which resulted in a disproportionately expensive trial and appeal process.  The appeal itself concerned an alleged procedural error by the trial judge in not acceding to a request by one party to adduce oral evidence, an error which Ward LJ considered may well have arisen, in part at least, as a result of the “chaos which litigants in person inevitably – and wholly understandably – manage to create” in such cases. 

Mediation

The rule against court-ordered mediation was set out by Dyson LJ and Ward LJ himself in Halsey in the following terms:

“It seems to us that to oblige truly unwilling parties to refer their disputes to mediation would be to impose an unacceptable obstruction on their right of access to the court.”

Delivering his judgment in Wright, Ward LJ noted that in Halsey he had been persuaded by the argument that to order parties to mediate would fall foul of the right to a fair trial enshrined in Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.  In Wright, Ward LJ suggests that he may have been wrong to decide this point as he did in Halsey and rhetorically questions whether forcing the parties to go through an additional step before gaining access to court would in fact be an “unacceptable obstruction”.  Whilst he declines to answer this question, since the point was not before the court in Wright, he suggests that a “bold judge” may wish to accede to an invitation to rule on this question, in order that the Court of Appeal may revisit this aspect of Halsey in the light of developments in mediation practice over the last decade. Ward LJ also suggests in Wright that CPR 26.4(2)(b) (which allows a court at the allocation stage to stay proceedings of its own initiative in order for the parties to attempt ADR), might permit the court at any time to direct a stay for mediation to be attempted with the warning of adverse cost consequences for unreasonably refusing to attempt ADR.

Comment

The recent reduction in legal aid funding may on its face have saved expenditure in one area, but this has, in Ward LJ’s view, simply increased the costs and expense of court proceedings, both at the trial and appellate stages.  Aside from the “inevitable chaos” of a case involving unrepresented litigants (Ward LJ refers to the requirement on judges to “micro-manage” such cases and praises Judge Anthony Thornton QC in this case for his “manful, patient, polite, careful and conscientious” efforts in this regard) he considers that Wright also highlights the impossibility of shifting litigants off the trial track and onto the parallel track of mediation, a situation which he describes as “depressing”. This is particularly so since he considers mediation to be a proper alternative to be “tried and exhausted” before finally resorting to trial, especially in cases such as this where mediation is an obvious way to move forward before parties “cripple themselves with debt”.

Ward LJ’s comments, whilst persuasive, are obiter and it therefore remains to be seen whether a suitable case and a “bold judge” emerge to tackle this issue head on, as he hopes.  If this aspect of Halsey is overruled, it will be interesting to see how this will affect both the take up of mediation and its success rate. It seems likely that legislation (either adapting CPR 26.4(2)(b) or a new provision entirely) would be desirable to put matters on a clear setting. In any event, forcing a party to mediate is one thing, forcing them to settle is a different matter entirely and is fraught with theoretical and practical difficulties even in cases which are overwhelmingly ripe for mediation.  It is well established that the success of mediation often rests in large part on the parties’ willingness to engage in the process, and as Ward LJ himself acknowledged, “you may be able to drag the horse (a mule offers a better metaphor) to water, but you cannot force the wretched animal to drink if it stubbornly resists.” The increase in court-annexed mediation pilots in England & Wales (for example in relation to small claims and certain appeals) should be monitored closely and their success analysed in this regard.