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'Welcome and robust' backing for summary judgment by Privy Council

Out-Law News | 22 May 2018 | 5:11 pm | 4 min. read

The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council has restored the summary judgment of a court in Jamaica in favour of a Jamaican bank in a case involving an unpaid debt.

The judgment had been overturned by the Court of Appeal of Jamaica, which ruled last year that debtor Marvalyn Taylor-Wright was entitled to full trial in which to plead her case. However, the London-based Privy Council board found that the facts argued by Taylor-Wright, although at odds with those put forward by Sagicor Bank Jamaica Ltd, would still have led to the same result.

Commercial litigation expert Craig Connal QC of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the judgment was a "welcome and robust" one, "in a world where the cost of full-blown litigation can deter or lead to settlement of many perfectly good claims".

"The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council's decisions remain a sometimes neglected source of useful material," he said.

"As is often the case, a variety of disputes arose here, but the real question was whether any of these even if they were hotly contested meant that summary judgment was excluded. In modern times, the court's comments about saving expense are interesting. The court also went on to remind parties that a summary judgment application can look wider than the pleadings – which may sometimes obscure rather than focus," he said.

"The judges went on to describe some of arguments as having 'an air of unreality' about them, or as being 'hopeless'. This led them to conclude that the case was one in which a trial 'would have amounted to no more than a serious waste of time and expense for the parties', and where summary judgment was 'the appropriate relief'. They went on to decide that there was no injustice to Ms Taylor-Wright as a result of the decision to grant summary judgment," he said.

Summary judgment is a procedure which allows the court to grant the relief sought by one of the parties to a case without the need for a full trial. Part 15 of Jamaica's Civil Procedure Rules (CPRs) allows one or the other of the parties to ask the court to decide whether summary judgment is the most appropriate means of deciding a case, and sets out the criteria which a court should refer to when deciding whether a full trial is necessary. The rules are very similar to those set out in the CPRs for England and Wales.

Taylor-Wright had agreed to borrow some J$21 million (€140,000) from RBTT Bank Jamaica Ltd, which is now part of Sagicor, in July 2007. Taylor-Wright provided a promissory note and two mortgages as collateral on the loan. Sagicor sued Taylor-Wright for recovery of the money in March 2011, claiming that she had not made any repayments since December 2009. Taylor-Wright argued that the promissory note held by Sagicor is a forgery. She provided a copy of what she claimed is the genuine promissory note, in precisely the same terms, to the court.

The trial judge in the case granted summary judgment in favour of Sagicor, finding that the bank's entitlement to the money "did not depend upon any issue which required a trial". Taylor-Wright had admitted that she borrowed the money, and the question of whether or not the note was a forgery was irrelevant. The Court of Appeal overturned his judgment, finding that the bank's case was based entirely on the note and that the forgery issue could not be resolved without a trial.

Lord Briggs, giving the judgment of the Privy Council, reviewed the role and effect of summary judgment against the background of the courts' "overriding objective", as set out in the CPRs. This overriding objective "encourage[s] the saving of expense, the dealing with a case in a proportionate manner, expeditiously and fairly, and allotting to it an appropriate share of the court's resources", he said.

"There will in almost all cases be disputes about the underlying facts, some of which may only be capable of resolution at trial, by the forensic processes of the examination and cross-examination of witnesses, and oral argument thereon," he said. "But a trial of those issues is only necessary if their outcome affects the claimant's entitlement to the relief sought. If it does not, then a trial of those issues will generally be nothing more than an unnecessary waste of time and expense."

"The Board considers it axiomatic that, if a pleaded claim is met with a defence (whether pleaded or deployed in evidence) on a summary judgment application which, if true, would still entitle the claimant to the relief sought, then generally there cannot be a need for a trial. If the pleaded claim justifies granting the relief sought then, if the claimant proves that claim, it will succeed. If the alleged defence also justified the relief sought, then the claimant will succeed even though the defendant proves the facts alleged in her defence. In either case, the defendant will have no real prospect of successfully defending the claim, within the meaning of [the relevant CPR]," he said.

In the present case, Taylor-Wright's defence was one which "if true, simply demonstrated the claimant's entitlement to the relief sought by the claim", the judge said.

"It was therefore a case in which a trial would have amounted to no more than a serious waste of time and expense for the parties, where the defendant's case disclosed no real prospect of her successfully resisting the bank's claim and where the grant of summary judgment was the appropriate relief for the judge to grant to bank, on the hearing of the parties' cross-applications," he said.