Solicitor’s libel defence struck out for “persistent failure to engage”

Collins Rice: Conduct was wholly unfair to the claimants

A High Court judge has struck out a solicitor’s defence to a libel claim following a “persistent failure to engage” with the litigation, including “multiple and serious” failures to comply with court orders and directions.

While the conduct of Ajaz Ahmed, principal of Merseyside firm Pure Legal Solicitors, was “oppressive and unjust”, Mrs Justice Collins Rice also said a description of Mr Ahmed’s mental health she had seen “clearly gives cause for concern and must evoke sympathy”.

In Shah & Anor v Ahmed & Ors [2022] EWHC 1816 (QB), the High Court heard that the claimants were Pakistani journalists based in London, Murtaza Ali Shah and Syed Mujtaba Ali Shah.

Their libel action followed the publication on a WhatsApp group in 2019 of two ‘press releases’, one in English and one in Urdu, accusing the journalists of “disorderly, abusive and violent” conduct at a press conference the previous day.

Mr Ahmed accepted that he had published the releases on behalf of his law firm, the second defendant, which is unconnected with the now-defunct Pure Legal Ltd.

The third defendant, Raja Usman Arshed, was “involved in the calling and management of the press conference” and “appears to have been a client” of the firm.

The claimants issued proceedings in January 2020, having sent pre-action letters a year earlier but received no response. Dewsbury law firm Kingswell Watts filed a defence on behalf of the defendants in June 2020.

The following month, the claimants informed Mr Ahmed of their intention to strike out his statutory libel defences as defectively pleaded.

In the absence of any reply, they issued the application in January 2021. Following a hearing attended by Mr Ahmed in March 2021, Master Davidson ordered him to amend his pleadings, failing which part of his statutory defences would be struck out.

The solicitor was also ordered to pay the claimants £600 on account of costs, an order he ignored. An amended defence was sent to the claimants after the deadline, “unsigned and still defective”.

Mr Justice Saini struck out the statutory defences in November 2021 and ordered the defendants to pay £8,000 in costs within 14 days. This was not complied with either.

The claimants applied to strike out the whole of the defence. Mrs Justice Collins Rice said that, three days before the trial in July, an application was made by Mr Ahmed’s son, Adam, to vacate the trial on the grounds of his father’s ‘health issues and case prejudice’.

Adam Ahmed supplied an unsigned letter from a doctor at the Royal Blackburn hospital which laid out his father’s mental health problems.

The judge said that, despite its limitations, the description of Mr Ahmed’s “poor mental health clearly gives cause for concern and must evoke sympathy”.

He suffered “on what appears to be an incipient or chronic basis, connected with life events over the past two years, and which had lately manifested itself in suicidal behaviours over the weeks leading up to the hearing”.

But equally, the defendants had not explained why the application was made at “the very last minute” or provided “clear and comprehensible medical evidence as to the impact” of Mr Ahmed’s illness in relation to the litigation.

Granting the claimants’ application to strike out the defence instead, she said the defendants had been given “repeated opportunities” to engage in the litigation but not taken them or offered any good reason for failing to do so.

“This course of conduct has been wasteful of court time and public resource, and wholly unfair to the claimants. It has denied them the opportunity to make out their case for vindication in a timely manner.

“The effect on the claimants is therefore highly prejudicial… I am satisfied in all these circumstances that the defendants’ conduct of this litigation has become oppressive and unjust.”

Adam Ahmed failed to substantiate his assertions that the defendants have reasonable prospects of defending the claim, she added.

The judge said she would order a timetable for written submissions on quantum and on consequential issues, including costs.

Murtaza Ali Shah said: “The defendants didn’t engage with the court process because they didn’t have a defence. We stand vindicated and we are thankful to our lawyers and to the court for upholding the truth.”

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