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Walley v Stoke on Trent City Council, Court of Appeal, 31 July 2006

11 August 2006
The issues

Pre-action admissions – use of process striking out – withdrawal of admission. Whether the withdrawal of an admission made by the Local Authority pre-issue was an abuse of process.

The facts

Mr Walley was a refuse collector employed by the City Council. On 28th August 2001, whilst getting out of the passenger seat of a refuse wagon he injured his knee. He alleged that the presence of plastic refuse bags within the foot well of the wagon had caused him to miss his step and fall. The case was referred to the City Council’s loss adjusters who wrote on the 13th June 2003′ after considering a statement by the driver of the wagon “liability would not be an issue in this case”. The individual who wrote the letter was authorised to do so. However, in the months following, the loss adjusters realised that his work was unsatisfactory and he was dismissed. Mr Walley’s file, amongst other files, was reviewed and on the 12th May 2004 the solicitors instructed for the Council wrote to withdraw the admission of liability. The Claimant issued proceedings and a Defence was filed denying liability. The Defence alleged that Mr Walley had injured himself by jumping from the vehicle rather than climbing down and that the plastic bags were stored behind the passenger seat rather than in the foot well and that in any event there were not many of them. The City Council also alleged contributory negligence. After the Defence was filed the case was allocated to the Multi-Track. After that the Claimant applied to strike out the Defence on the ground that it was an abuse of process of the Court or was otherwise likely to obstruct the just disposal of the proceedings. The Council cross applied for permission to resile from their earlier admission. The matter came before the Deputy District Judge who considered that the Council ought to be bound by the admission and entered Judgment for damages to be assessed. The City Council appealed to the Judge who dismissed the appeal. Subsequent to the decision of the Judge the decision of the Court of Appeal in Sowerby v Charlton was reported. It was common ground that in the light of Sowerby the Judge’s decision could not be upheld. The Claimant sought to uphold the Judge’s decision on other grounds, namely that the Court had inherent jurisdiction to hear an Application to strike out a Defence which entailed the withdrawal of pre-action admission and that the earlier admission created an estoppel. In the alternative the Claimants admitted that the claim of liability gave rise to a binding agreement.

The decision

For a Claimant to show that the withdrawal of an admission would amount to an abuse of the process of the Court it would usually be necessary to show that the Defendant had acted in bad faith. That was not the case here. There was before the Court a statement from the solicitor for the Council providing a full explanation of why it had been decided to withdraw the admission.

In order to show that the withdrawal of a pre-action admission was likely to obstruct the just disposal of the case it would usually be necessary for the Claimant to show that he would suffer some prejudice which would affect the fairness of the Trial. This might for example include the destruction of an item of real evidence or he might agree that an expert inspection was not necessary and it might not be possible for one to take place anymore. Witnesses might have died or lost contact. Funding difficulties might also give rise to real prejudice if the evidence were to show that the Claimant had changed his position in reliance on the pre-action admission. There was however here no such evidence.

Mr Walley would be disappointed. This was not underestimated as an issue. The loss and admission of full liability must create a sense of uncertainty, turmoil, and even despair but those feelings could not be said to obstruct the just disposal of the case.

Comments

Lord Justice Brooke gave a short additional Judgment commenting that there would be great force in giving the status of an admission of liability in response to a pre-action protocol letter before action in a multi-track claim more powerful effect than it presently had. Given the existence of a valuable pre-action procedure in personal injury litigation anything that lent uncertainty to the value of a pre-action admission of liability appeared to Lord Justice Brooke to run against the grain of the overriding objective and be likely to lead to over avoidable delay expense and worry.

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The content on this page is provided for the purposes of general interest and information. It contains only brief summaries of aspects of the subject matter and does not provide comprehensive statements of the law. It does not constitute legal advice and does not provide a substitute for it.

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