Client sued over unpaid fees loses appeal against contempt sentence

Nugee: Hearing was fair

A man sued by a Kent law firm for unpaid fees has lost his appeal against a suspended sentence handed out for contempt over his failure to comply with court orders.

The Court of Appeal held that the many claims of injustice made by Gary Moore (also known as Gary Bullock) failed to address the fundamental point that he had not complied with the orders obtained by Boys & Maugham.

Her Honour Judge Catherine Brown, sitting at Canterbury County Court last August, found three of four counts of contempt provided and sentenced Mr Moore to eight weeks imprisonment, suspended for a year on condition that he file and serve a witness statement the following month answering questions concerning his financial position. He appealed instead.

Mr Moore retained Boys & Maugham in January 2018 over proceedings brought against him by his ex-partner seeking an order for sale of a property they jointly owned.

The firm deferred payment of its costs to the end of the matter on the basis that they would be paid out of Mr Moore’s share of the proceeds.

The property was sold in early 2019 and Mr Moore received around £79,000, but he did not pay the £13,862 Boys & Maugham said it was owed.

It brought proceedings and obtained judgment in default in April 2019 for £14,752. Mr Moore’s application to set this aside was dismissed. Further costs orders have been made since.

Mr Moore paid £13,862 into court, and this has been paid on to the solicitors, but over £16,000 in costs remain outstanding.

In January 2020, the claimants applied for the oral examination of Mr Moore as a judgment debtor, but he failed to comply with various orders to produce documents and a witness statement about his ability to pay.

Lord Justice Nugee rejected Mr Moore’s various grounds of appeal, including that it was unjust of the judge to expect him to cope, especially as he was a litigant in person of no fixed abode suffering from mental health issues.

He noted that HHJ Brown had adjourned a hearing in February 2020 for him to obtain legal advice and was represented by solicitors and counsel at subsequent hearings.

But at the substantive hearing of the committal application, Mr Moore dismissed his lawyers and said he wanted to represent himself.

Nugee LJ said: “We were not told why Mr Moore chose to dispense with the services of counsel and represent himself, and of course he is not obliged to give any reason, but having chosen to represent himself at that hearing, he can scarcely complain that he was thereby disadvantaged.

“In any event, although the court will do what it can to ensure that litigants in person have a fair hearing, taking into account the disadvantages that litigants in person necessarily suffer from, it is clearly established that acting as a litigant in person is not a reason for exempting a litigant from compliance with the rules and orders of the court.

“I see nothing unreasonable, unjust or unfair in HHJ Brown expecting the appellant to continue with the hearing in those circumstances.”

HHJ Brown had good reason to find that, while Mr Moore had some psychological issues, he did not lack capacity and could understand what was going on and what was required of him, Nugee LJ added.

Accusations Mr Moore levelled at Boys & Maugham, even if true, did not affect the question of whether he complied with the orders made against him.

All the other points he made simply confirmed “that Mr Moore suffers from a profound sense of grievance”, Nugee LJ concluded, dismissing his appeal.

Lord Justice Davis agreed that Mr Moore “clearly bitterly resents the conduct” of Boys & Maugham, but the many allegations he made about the solicitors’ conduct were “nothing to the point”.

“The point is that orders of the court were made. It is not for Mr Moore then to refuse to comply with them simply because he does not himself agree with those orders,” he said.

The judge went on to warn him that, if he maintained his current stance, “not only will he continue to incur further costs liabilities but in addition he may find that the suspended sentence is activated and he may go to prison”.

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