High Court grants Extended Civil Restraint Order against Village Hall crusader

13 Feb 2020

Public Law and Judicial Review

In the case of Panton and Wilkins v Vale of White Horse District Council and Reed  [2020] EWHC 167 (Ch), the High Court has granted an Extended Civil Restraint Order (ECRO) against a litigant in person who issued three separate claims against the Denchworth Parish Trustees all relating to the ownership of Denchworth Village Hall.

The Denchworth Parish Trustees represent the lowest tier of government in England: the parish meeting. In the early 1990s, on behalf of the Denchworth Parish Meeting, they executed a deed of charitable trust settling Denchworth Village Hall on charitable trusts. In the early 2000s, a separate charity was established and legal ownership of the Hall transferred to four “holding trustees” on behalf of the charity. In 2016, legal ownership of the Hall was vested in the Charity Commission.

None of this history would appear, on the surface, to be in any way remarkable. Hundreds of village halls across the country are owned and managed in exactly this way.

However, that was not how it appeared to one villager. He became convinced that the Hall’s ownership was not secure, that it was at risk of being sold off in the future and that a number of people involved had acted dishonestly in the process.

In late 2016, he issued a claim for judicial review seeking to challenge an email sent on behalf of the Parish Trustees, expressing their opinion about the ownership of the Hall. Permission was refused on the papers and subsequently at an oral renewal hearing: the expression of opinion was not amenable to judicial review and, in any event, related to events which occurred 14 years previously where there was no evidence of unlawfulness. Permission to appeal was refused by the Court of Appeal.

Almost as soon as the judicial review claim was finally disposed of, a second claim was issued in the Chancery Division. This claim – which made allegations of breach of trust against the Trustees for denying their true ownership of the Hall – was struck out on the basis that there were no reasonable grounds for bringing the claim. Permission to appeal was refused by both the judge and the Court of Appeal.

In the meantime, the claimant had submitted petitions to the Charity Commission and the Attorney General, seeking their intervention in the case, and made formal complaints against one of the Parish Trustees and counsel acting on their behalf. He had also made a veiled threat of imprisonment for contempt of court against the volunteer trustees of the charity which managed the Hall.

Nor had the claimant paid anything towards the costs orders made against him which, in any event, represented only a fraction of the costs incurred by Vale of White Horse District Council (which had indemnified the Parish Trustees) in dealing with the many claims and complaints he had generated.

In August 2019, the claimant issued a third claim against the Parish Trustees. This claim alleged that the previous two claims had been defeated by deliberately false statements made to court by the Parish Trustees and sought damages equivalent to the value of the costs orders which had been made in favour of the Parish Trustees in the previous proceedings.

In response, the Parish Trustees applied to strike out the claim and for an ECRO.

The High Court concluded that this third claim was an abuse of process, struck it out and certified it as being totally without merit, pursuant to CPR r.3.4(6)(a).

The court also concluded that it was appropriate to make an ECRO for the full two-year period:

  • The threshold for making an ECRO is that at least three claims or applications have been made which were totally without merit. In this case, there had been a total of seven claims or applications which had been bound to fail and were therefore totally without merit. Accordingly, the court had jurisdiction to make an ECRO [56], [68].
  • The fact that none of the previous claims or applications had been certified as being totally without merit at the time did not preclude the court from subsequently making such a finding, following a review of the litigation history [54].
  • The application for permission to apply for judicial review, which had been refused on the papers, and following an oral renewal hearing, counted as two separate applications for these purposes [62], [65]-[66].
  • Similarly applications for permission to appeal – whether to the first-instance judge or the appeal court – also counted as separate applications [61].
  • It was proportionate to make an ECRO on the facts of this case. The claimant had embarked on a “crusade” which involved “repeated allegations of malfeasance or misconduct” and “unsubstantiated allegations of misleading the court”. Accordingly, “the risk that he may bring further unmeritorious claims in the courts is high.” [75]

This case will be of particular interest to public authorities dealing with vexatious litigants who will not take “no” for an answer.

For civil litigators and public lawyers, the case is especially helpful for its confirmation that an application for an oral renewal hearing may, in principle, be taken into account when determining if the threshold for making a Civil Restraint Order has been reached. After all, unless the claimant positively acts to renew their application for permission, the application is disposed of on the papers and therefore comes to an end. If the application to renew a claim which is totally without merit keeps that claim alive, there is no reason in principle why it should not be counted against a vexatious litigant.

Matt Lewin, a member of Cornerstone Barristers’ Public Law team, represented the Denchworth Parish Trustees throughout all three claims. He was instructed by Mari Roberts, Trevor Griffiths and Anna Moon of Sharpe Pritchard LLP.