12th May 2021
[This post now has an Addendum]
Today’s Private Eye revealed that there is a county court judgment (CCJ) against Boris Johnson.
What can be worked out from this information?
First, it appears that it is a judgment against Johnson as a private individual, as the legal claim was not made against him as prime minister – we know this as this claim process cannot be used against central government entities.
Also note that it does not matter that Johnson’s full name is not used, and that the address is ‘Number 10’ when in fact he lives at Number 11, if those were the details provided by Johnson to the claimant.
Second, the legal claim was made online – we know this because of the court name and because of the ‘MC’ used in the case reference number.
Third, it appears to be a debt claim – as the claim appears to have been for a specified amount.
[UPDATE – this third observation seems not correct – see Addendum below.]
Fourth, it appears that the CCJ is a so-called ‘default judgment’ – this is a judgment that are entered against defendants if they either do not acknowledge the claim or do not defend the claim in time.
That it is a default judgment is suggested by the claim not having been allocated to an actual county court.
On the assumption that the CCJ is for a default judgment, then there are two likely explanations.
The first explanation is that the claim was not properly or validly served – that Johnson had no idea that there was a claim against him.
The second explanation is that the claim was properly and validly served but that, for some reason, the claim was not dealt with properly.
A default judgment is not directly about the merits of a claim – it is a procedural device which has the effect of making defendants take a claim seriously.
If a claim comes in and is, say, ignored then a default judgment will be entered.
Given the sheer amount of correspondence that is received in Downing Street, it is perhaps understandable that occasionally items are missed.
That said, for an October 2020 CCJ to be revealed in May 2021 indicates that:
(a) any final demand or letter before claim was missed/ignored;
(b) the claim form was either not served or was missed/ignored; and
(c) a copy of the CCJ was missed/ignored.
What a default judgment does not necessarily indicate is that there were insufficient funds – for a CCJ can still be headed off even when a claim form is served as long as the defendant reacts promptly.
Therefore what the CCJ speaks to is not Johnson’s impecunity (at least not directly) but to Johnson’s disorganisation.
Somehow, someway it appears that Johnson (or his office) missed or did not respond to a final demand/letter before claim, a claim form and (most strikingly) the actual judgment and court order.
So what can Johnson do now?
He can seek to apply to the court to have the CCJ set aside.
But here he may face problems.
He can have the judgment set aside as of right if he did not actually receive the claim form.
But if the claim form was validly served then (in general terms), he can only have the judgment set aside at the discretion of a judge.
For a judge to exercise this discretion in Johnson’s favour he has (again in general terms) to show two things.
First, he would need to show that there was a defence to the claim – that he did not actually owe the money.
Second, he would also need to show that he had acted promptly – and here the calendar is against him.
Waiting until May to apply to have an October judgment set aside will not be an easy thing to explain to a judge – and one can imagine many judges being unimpressed by the delay, regardless of the merits.
Downing Street has now provided a statement.
From this statement it can be inferred that the claim was indeed validly served – else that would be the basis for the application and not the basis given.
Instead, the statement uses standard wording which goes to the exercise of a judge’s discretion.
(One suspects that the wording of the Number 10 statement was provided by a lawyer.)
Perhaps the claim was a prank – though it can be a quite serious and potentially criminal matter to issue a false legal claim.
There seems to be off-the-record briefing to political reporters saying that the claim was not ‘genuine’ – but even if this is the case, there was still a claim form and a CCJ missed by Downing Street and/or Johnson.
The fact that the claim may not have been well-made does not take away from the evident disorganisation which meant that a claim was served on and a CCJ received by Johnson and nothing appears to have been done about it.
It cannot be assumed that a court will set a CCJ aside even if the claim is not ‘genuine’, if there has been too much delay.
Courts are increasingly unwilling to give any relief from sanctions in civil cases – and a default judgment is a sanction for non-compliance.
And there is, of course, a recent example of a civil court being unimpressed with a (former) government minister who did not comply with the civil procedure rules: Andrew Mitchell v News Group Newspapers Ltd.
In that case, Mitchell’s legal team did not get around to serving a costs budget in time – a delay which cost Mitchell about £500,000 – some thousand times more than this CCJ.
A court may be similarly unwilling to give Johnson a relief from this sanction.
Always, always deal with legal correspondence quickly – for if this can happen to the prime minister, it can happen to you.
ADDENDUM – 13th May 2021
A report in the Daily Mail now provides detail on the claim – the piece is written by an experienced legal/courts reporter.
It appears that the claim is not for a debt – even though it is for a specific amount.
If the claim was brought on the basis and in the way described, it is likely that the court will set aside the judgment and strike out the claim.
The only problem would be delay – and although anyone who has appeared before county court judges can imagine a judge refusing such an application – delay will probably not be fatal to Johnson’s application in the reported circumstances.
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