The High Court has approved class action firm PGMBM terminating a retainer that leaves 183 litigants to continue their battle for compensation alone.
Mr Justice Turner said PGMBM’s “initial enthusiasm” for pursuing the litigation had “since waned”.
The claimants are suing over birth defects linked to the hormone-based pregnancy test Primodos, which was withdrawn in 1978. They now found themselves in the “invidious position” of progressing their claims in person, he said.
In all, 231 claimants launched proceedings in two tranches of claims issued in 2019 and 2021.
Dealing with an application for the firm to come off the record, he said the “bottom line” was that the court “cannot normally (if at all) require a solicitor” to continue to act for a party whose retainer he or she had terminated.
“In this case, I can see no advantage and every disadvantage if I were to perpetuate the fiction that PGMBM and the claimants are acting as solicitors and clients respectively when they are clearly not.”
The judge observed that the claimants could sue the solicitors if they considered the termination unjustified, stressing that “I make no relevant finding on that issue”.
In order to preserve privilege, he did not say why PGMBM was withdrawing.
“Indeed, it is quite unnecessary for me to do so. It is simply not open to this court to adjudicate on the merits of those grounds.
“Many individual claimants expressed acute and well-articulated disappointment, perceiving that they had been positively encouraged to join in the litigation by PGMBM only to be let down and abandoned at a late stage.
“PGMBM, on the other hand, contended that they have behaved with propriety throughout.”
Turner J said that whatever the rights and wrongs of PGMBM’s actions, “the claimants (some of whom suffer from a range of disabilities which are liable to present real challenges to their ability to conduct litigation) now find themselves in the invidious position of facing the challenge of progressing their claims in person unless and until alternative representation can be found and funded”.
In addition to the firm’s application, 48 claimants applied to discontinue their claims.
The judge said the law firm had agreed to act as a post box for any claimants that wanted it to do so until the end of this year, free of charge.
This would “mitigate to some extent the procedural chaos which would otherwise be liable to ensue in the event of coming off the record forthwith”.
PGMBM also said it would not pursue any claimants in respect of costs incurred to date, and would act on any claims for costs made against the claimants.
About 50 of the now unrepresented claimants addressed the High Court.
Turner J said: “Each was given the opportunity to make his or her representations to the court and I am grateful to those who accepted my invitation for the dignity and restraint with which they expressed their views.”
Turner J said he struggled to see how the managing judge in the litigation, Mrs Justice Yip, could “continue to exercise case management discipline unless and until the 183 individual claimants are able to agree and retain alternative solicitors” to represent their common interests.
“The best I can do at this stage is to give permission to these claimants to continue unrepresented until further order of the court.”
Today, meanwhile, the Court of Appeal will begin hearing the firm’s appeal against another decision by Turner J, this time to strike out an “unmanageable” £5bn group action brought by 200,000 claimants over a dam collapse in Brazil.
After he refused permission to appeal his decision, Lord Justice Coulson followed suit on paper, but last July the Court of Appeal – with the Master of the Rolls, Sir Geoffrey Vos, giving the ruling – reopened that refusal and granted permission.
In a separate development, PGMBM has hired Alicia Alinia as its chief operation officer for the UK and continental Europe. She joins from Slater & Gordon, where she was chief people officer and managing director of consumer legal services.
PGMBM said it currently represented more than a million clients in its various cases and, since its launch less than four years ago under the name SPG Law, the firm has grown to over 600 employees – including more than 100 qualified lawyers – with offices in London, Liverpool, Philadelphia, Miami, Amsterdam and Edinburgh, along with Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte in Brazil.