Serving papers on empty office considered ‘poor judgment’ by High Court

Matthew Howe

A recent decision by the High Court has overturned a default judgment obtained after the claimant’s solicitor served the claim papers by post to an empty office during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Justice Julian Knowles granted the decision in the case Stanley v London Borough of Tower Hamlets [2020]. After a number of unsuccessful attempts to engage in pre-action correspondence, the claimant’s solicitor issued and posted the papers to the defendant’s office for the purpose of serving. The problem was that the posting took place two days after the lockdown was announced and the defendant’s office had closed

Having received no acknowledgement of service or defence, the claimant’s solicitors sought default judgment, which was granted. Only once the defendant’s solicitors became aware of the default judgment did they realise that a claim had been issued in the first place.

The defendant’s solicitors immediately applied to have the default judgment set aside on the grounds that it was unreasonable for the claimant’s solicitor to serve by post knowing that the defendant’s office was closed according to government guidance.

Whilst Justice Knowles did not believe that the claimant’s solicitor had taken advantage of the lockdown, he was critical of their failure to check and consider if service by post was still acceptable. He further criticised the fact that the claimant’s solicitor had not attempted to contact the defendant to find out if the documents had been received, and said: 

‘A moment’s thought on his part would have shown that it was not fair or reasonable for him simply to place papers in the post to an office that he knew or should have known had been closed down two days before because of a national emergency.’

The default judgment was set aside. The defendant was also granted relief from sanctions and given permission to file and serve an acknowledgement of service and defence within 14 days.

This appears to be a stark warning for claimants about their responsibility during times of national uncertainty to ensure that pleadings are effectively served. The claimant should consider whether the defendant has safely received the papers and if they suspect not, then they should enquire. Failure to do so may result in any default judgment being set aside.

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