“Abusive” claim against lawyers in Jarndyce-style litigation struck out

Cockerill: No complete cause of action could be claimed

A High Court judge has struck out a £58m unlawful means conspiracy claim against a law firm, four solicitors and a QC, which she described as “structurally fatally flawed, abusive and lacking in pleadable substance”.

Mrs Justice Cockerill said that a “multiplicity of litigation” had sprung from a collapsed fraudulent misrepresentation trial, “which must inevitably put any observer with a taste for nineteenth century fiction in mind of the infamous Jarndyce case”.

She said the current conspiracy claim, for which she produced a judgment of 489 paragraphs, was merely “one outcropping of that litigation”.

Delivering judgment in King and others v Stiefel and others [2021] EWHC 1045 (Comm), Cockerill J said Antony and Susan King brought a claim of fraudulent misrepresentation arising from the negotiations for the sale of a company founded by James King to Primekings.

A High Court trial began in April 2017, but the Kings abandoned it after 10 days and apologised to the defendants. They were ordered to make a payment on account of costs of £1.7m.

In the current action, they made a claim of unlawful means conspiracy against Primekings and the defendants’ lawyers in the misrepresentation claim – Teacher Stern, four solicitors working there and the defendants’ QC.

The Kings claimed “substantial damages” on the basis that, but for the conspiracy, they would have won the misrepresentation claim.

Cockerill J said the central claim alleged that the defendants had “unlawfully conspired to provide false and inflated cost information (including artificial costs budgets) to the claimants and the court”, with the aim of pressuring them.

Cockerill J described the Kings’ pleading in the conspiracy claim as “unclear in the extreme”, mixing “tendentiousness with a combination of oversupply of evidence and undersupply of proper particulars”.

She said allegations that the defendants deceived the court gave no particulars of deceit which enabled the reader to “ascertain on what basis these very serious allegations made against professionals are advanced”.

Cockerill J concluded: “The result – reached very simply and by a straightforward route of analysis of the pleaded claim, entirely divorced from any controversial facts – is that the entirety of the Kings’ claim fails.

“To be clear, the claim fails because no complete cause of action is currently pleaded or could be pleaded.”

She said an “unpleaded claim” relating to “inferred threats” should also be struck out, along with a subsidiary part of the claim relating to costs.

“In striking out the claim and/or granting summary judgment I am not therefore by any means stifling a claim which should be heard.

“What I am doing is bringing a proper conclusion to a claim which is structurally fatally flawed, abusive and lacking in pleadable substance.”

The judge would also have struck out the claim for abuse of process – the claim was “entirely dependent” upon proving that the misrepresentation claim would have succeeded.

“That means that the Kings would have to prove the merits of that claim – by one means or another – and to effectively seek to go behind the discontinuance.” This was not permissible.

Cockerill J ended her ruling by criticising the legal team representing the claimants for its “hair trigger approach to accusing their correspondents of impropriety”.

She said that on “a number of occasions” those instructed for the Kings “appear to have responded to correspondence in a manner which steps well beyond mere abrasiveness into allegations of misconduct for which no justifiable basis can be discerned”.

The judge said the correspondence had been conducted with “no regard at all” for paragraph A1.10 of the Commercial Court Guide which stated: “The court expects a high level of co-operation and realism from the legal representatives of the parties.”

Daniel Lightman QC and Charlotte Beynon, instructed by Kennedys Law, acted for Teacher Stern and the solicitors, with Charles Hollander QC, instructed by DAC Beachcroft, for the QC.

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