Northern Irish courts declare an individual a "vexatious litigant" for the first time

Out-Law News | 09 Jun 2014 | 11:43 am | 2 min. read

A court in Northern Ireland has granted an application to declare an individual a "vexatious litigant" brought by the country's attorney general for the first time.

Litigation expert Laura Gillespie of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the decision opened up a "welcome remedy" to companies and public sector bodies facing unreasonable "habitual and persistent" claims against individuals. John William Morrow, who has brought several court claims against bodies including the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), will now have to seek leave of the High Court before he can bring proceedings in any court or tribunal.

In England and Wales, the Civil Procedure Rules (CPRs) give judges the power to issue a civil restraint order against individuals who have issued multiple court claims or made multiple applications which are "totally without merit". No such power exists in Northern Ireland. However, under the 1978 Judicature (Northern Ireland) Act, the Attorney General for Northern Ireland has the power to seek an order from the High Court that an individual be declared a vexatious litigant where they have "habitually and persistently and without any reasonable ground instituted vexatious legal proceedings" in the High Court or in any lower court or tribunal.

In April 2013, Master Bell in the High Court dismissed an application brought by Morrow against PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott and Deputy Chief Constable Judith Gillespie in connection with PSNI recruitment processes. In his "handwritten" writ which was "in some instances difficult to read", Morrow alleged that the PSNI had recruited "verified criminals" and officers from Strathclyde Police into the police force ahead of "honest, decent, vastly experienced Royal Ulster Constabulary George Cross Medal officers". He sought damages of £1 billion and £40 million respectively.

Master Bell was able to strike out this particular application under the Northern Ireland Court Rules, which permit the courts to do so in cases which are "scandalous, frivolous or vexatious" or where the writ discloses "no reasonable cause of action". However, he said that this provision could not be invoked "to deprive plaintiffs of their right to bring an arguable matter before the courts". Instead, the case should be brought to the Attorney General who should consider a vexatious litigant application, he said.

"The right to bring a legal action where the civil law has been breached is a precious and important right," he said. "Every citizen deserves his day in court where he has a claim that genuinely requires determination. However, where completely unmeritorious litigation is brought, a plaintiff takes someone else's day in court."

"This is the third action by the plaintiff which I have struck out in recent times. Two have been against police forces and one against the Housing Executive. Though the plaintiff has been unfailingly polite and courteous to both his legal opponents and to the court, each legal action has, in my view, been entirely without legal merit ... Each set of proceedings has caused a considerable waste of public money in defending them, despite the fact that they have been struck out at an early stage," he said.

"This result will be a welcome remedy for those on the wrong side of unmeritorious claims brought by personal litigants who habitually and persistently issue claims without reasonable grounds, where such practice amounts to an abuse of court process," said litigation expert Laura Gillespie of Pinsent Masons. "It will save defendants substantial costs in fighting such claims when an order is obtained."

In Scotland the Lord Advocate can ask the Inner House, the appeal court of the Court of Session, to stop a person from bringing proceedings without leave if they have "habitually and persistently instituted vexatious legal proceedings without reasonable ground". The Scottish Civil Courts Review recommended that the civil courts in Scotland should have powers similar to those in England and Wales in relation to civil restraint orders, and a proposal to that effect is part of the Courts Reform (Scotland) Bill which is currently before the Scottish Parliament.