Our jurisdiction generally does not favour laws (whether judge- or parliament-made) which fail to take account of what is just in the individual circumstances of the particular case. The common law prides itself in being able to adapt to new situations to yield what we would generally understand to be the ‘right’ result. This is a priority of our legal system and Mitchell fell foul of it – whether because it overstepped the mark in the first place or whether because it was wrongly interpreted. It is a strength of our system that it has been able to correct itself within such a short space of time.
Exit Mitchell and enter Denton (or perhaps it will become known as ‘Decadent’). The Court of Appeal explains that when approaching rule 3.9 the first stage is to identify and assess the seriousness and significance of the ‘failure to comply with any rule, practice direction or court order’. If the breach is neither significant nor serious then there is no need to spend much time on the second and third stages. The second stage is to consider why the default occurred. The third stage is to evaluate ‘all the circumstances of the case, so as to enable [the court] to deal justly with the application including [factors (a) and (b)]’.
The assessment of ‘seriousness and significance’ is substituted for the ‘triviality’ test. The Law Society had contended for a test of ‘immateriality’. The Court of Appeal was content with this as long as it involved not just a question of whether trial dates were affected but also the effect on litigation generally. Because this test did not take account of breaches which were serious but did not affect the efficient progress of the litigation, the Court preferred to stick to whether or not the breach was ‘serious or significant’. At this stage unrelated past failures should not be taken into account.
The second stage is to consider why the default occurred. The examples in Mitchell are to be considered as no more than examples.
When it comes to the third stage, if there is a serious or significant breach and there is no good reason for it the application will not automatically fail but the court will consider ‘all the circumstances of the case, so as to enable it to deal justly with the application’. The Court of Appeal rowed back from the epithet ‘paramount importance’ which had been attached to the only two factors expressly referred to in rule 3.9. They are now of ‘particular importance’ and should be given particular weight when all the circumstances of the case are considered.
The Court of Appeal is on a tight rope. Its aim is evidently to avoid relaxation which ‘will inevitably lead to the court[s] slipping back to the old culture of non-compliance which the Jackson reforms were designed to eliminate.’ Equally it wants to put an end to the plethora of decisions which have come from some judges which are ‘manifestly unjust and disproportionate’. Whether Denton will achieve that remains to be seen.