High Court Grants Adjournment and Severs Claims in Complex BHS Group Limited Trial: Key Legal Principles and Outcome

Citation: [2023] EWHC 2873 (Ch)
Judgment on

Introduction

In the case of Anthony John Wright & Ors v Dominic Joseph Andrew Chappell & Ors [2023] EWHC 2873 (Ch), the High Court grappled with a complex application for the adjournment of a trial concerning the insolvent BHS Group Limited. Given its diverse facets, this case provides a rich template for analyzing various legal principles pertaining to adjournment, severance of proceedings, compliance with pleading rules, and interplay with human rights under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Key Facts

The application for adjournment was made by Mr. Dominic Chappell, who was recently released from prison and had undergone a limited role in the procedural history of the action due to his incarceration. The application was grounded on six arguments, chiefly focused on lack of access to trial bundles and disclosure documents, health issues, and procedural complexities arising from his imprisonment.

The Joint Liquidators opposed the application, ready to concede only a week for Mr. Chappell to read in and prepare before continuing the trial, whereas the Respondents Mr. Henningson and Mr. Chandler proposed severing the claims against Mr. Chappell under CPR Part 3.1(2)(e).

Adjournment

The court referenced the overriding objective and the principles outlined in cases like Fitzroy Robinson Ltd v Mentmore Towers Ltd (No 2) and Elliott Group Ltd v GECC UK. The decision of whether to adjourn hinged on factors such as parties’ conduct, the capacity to overcome delays, possible jeopardy to a fair trial, specific matters impacting the trial, and the ramifications of an adjournment for the parties and the court.

Medical Evidence

The court dwelled on the quality of medical evidence required for adjournment applications, citing Decker v Hopcraft and Bilta (UK) Ltd v Tradition Financial Services Ltd. Reliability of the evidence, clear representation of the medical condition, its impact on trial participation, and prognosis were imperative considerations.

Article 6 Considerations

Mr. Chappell’s Article 6 rights under the European Convention on Human Rights were also a salient factor. Leveraging guidance from Akcine Bendrove Bankas Snoras v Antonov, the court underscored the need for caution when proceeding in the absence of a Defendant, especially considering the serious nature of the allegations and issues pertaining to the Defendant’s right to a fair hearing.

Severance of Proceedings

Under CPR Part 3.1(2)(e), the court has the authority to manage cases efficiently, which includes directing that parts of proceedings be treated as separate if that would prevent inconvenience.

Compliance with Pleading Rules

Questions arose over whether Mr. Chappell’s “Points of Defence” were sufficient, as per CPR Part 16.5 requirements. The court took the position that while compliance with pleading rules was expected, non-compliance did not automatically bar a Defendant from defending, referencing principles from the case JSC BTA Bank v Ablyazov (No 9).

Outcomes

The court decided to grant the adjournment based on Mr. Chappell’s inability to participate effectively in the trial due to his medical condition. Furthermore, recognizing the need for efficiency and to prevent injustice, the court chose to sever the claims against Mr. Chappell, essentially partitioning the proceedings, a move that reflected the ‘least worst’ option under the circumstances.

Conclusion

Through a rigorous analysis of the application at hand, Mr. Justice Leech interwove various dimensions of legal practice to reach an equitable resolution, meticulously balancing the interests of the parties involved alongside practical and procedural constraints. This case reaffirms the notion that the principles of fairness, proper case management, and the safeguarding of participants’ rights lie at the heart of civil proceedings, even in the thorny thicket of insolvency litigation.

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