In a resounding warning that even minor delays in compliance with court orders will no longer be tolerated, a police force’s defence to serious claims, including race discrimination and assault, will be hamstrung after it was refused permission to rely on the evidence of eight witnesses whose statements were filed late.
In a decision which will be required reading for any lawyer engaged in civil litigation, the Court of Appeal emphasised that incompetence is never a good reason for failing to comply with evidence disclosure deadlines and that the need for cases to be conducted efficiently and at proportionate cost is the overriding factor.
A member of the public had sued the police force claiming, amongst other things, false imprisonment, racially aggravated assault, malicious prosecution and misfeasance in public office. The case had a tortuous procedural history, but the force had been directed to disclose witness evidence by a particular date.
The force had sought to put forward evidence from eight witnesses, including police officers who had been present during the relevant events and whose reputations and careers were said to be on the line. However, the disclosure deadline was missed and, as a result, the case had to be adjourned on the day that it was fixed for trial.
The trial judge granted the force relief from the sanctions that would otherwise have resulted from the late disclosure and permitted the eight witnesses statements to be adduced. However, the claimant in the case challenged that decision on the basis that the judge had taken too tolerant a view of the force’s default and had reached a decision that was plainly wrong.
Allowing the claimant’s appeal, the Court of Appeal noted that all eight witness statements had been purportedly served outside the deadline and six of them had arrived more than two months late. The force’s default was ‘not the result of any unforeseeable event’ but had arisen through incompetence that was ‘simply inexcusable’.
In ruling that the force had wrongly been granted relief from sanctions, and that the evidence of the eight witnesses should be excluded from the hearing of the action, the Court noted that, in necessitating the adjournment of the trial, the delay was inimical to the efficient conduct of the litigation at proportionate cost.