It is not a housing case at all, but the opening paragraphs of Sir Alan Ward’s Court of Appeal judgment in Wright v Michael Wright Supplies Ltd & Anor  EWCA Civ 234 are a remarkable and powerful statement of the position that the Court finds itself in with the removal of much legal aid, and the MoJ’s emphasis on mediation as a cure all for the un-represented. I quote them without further comment.
2. What I find so depressing is that the case highlights the difficulties increasingly encountered by the judiciary at all levels when dealing with litigants in person. Two problems in particular are revealed. The first is how to bring order to the chaos which litigants in person invariably – and wholly understandably – manage to create in putting forward their claims and defences. Judges should not have to micro-manage cases, coaxing and cajoling the parties to focus on the issues that need to be resolved. Judge Thornton did a brilliant job in that regard yet, as this case shows, that can be disproportionately time-consuming. It may be saving the Legal Services Commission which no longer offers legal aid for this kind of litigation but saving expenditure in one public department in this instance simply increases it in the courts. The expense of three judges of the Court of Appeal dealing with this kind of appeal is enormous. The consequences by way of delay of other appeals which need to be heard are unquantifiable. The appeal would certainly never have occurred if the litigants had been represented. With more and more self-represented litigants, this problem is not going to go away. We may have to accept that we live in austere times, but as I come to the end of eighteen years service in this court, I shall not refrain from expressing my conviction that justice will be ill served indeed by this emasculation of legal aid.
3. My second concern is that the case shows it is not possible to shift intransigent parties off the trial track onto the parallel track of mediation. Both tracks are intended to meet the modern day demands of civil justice. The raison d’être (or do I simply mean excuse?) of the Ministry of Justice for withdrawing legal aid from swathes of litigation is that mediation is a proper alternative which should be tried and exhausted before finally resorting to a trial of the issues. I heartily agree with the aspiration and there are many judgments of mine saying so. But the rationale remains a pious hope when parties are unwilling even to try mediation. Judge Thornton attempted valiantly and persistently, time after time, to persuade these parties to put themselves in the hands of a skilled mediator, but they refused. What, if anything, can be done about that? You may be able to drag the horse (a mule offers a better metaphor) to water, but you cannot force the wretched animal to drink if it stubbornly resists. I suppose you can make it run around the litigation course so vigorously that in a muck sweat it will find the mediation trough more friendly and desirable. But none of that provides the real answer. Perhaps, therefore, it is time to review the rule in Halsey v Milton Keynes General NMS Trust  EWCA Civ 576,  1 WLR 3002, for which I am partly responsible, where at  in the judgment of the Court (Laws and Dyson LJJ and myself), Dyson LJ said:
“It seems to us that to oblige truly unwilling parties to refer their disputes to mediation would be to impose an unacceptable obstruction on their right of access to the court.”
Was this observation obiter? Some have argued that it was. Was it wrong for us to have been persuaded by the silky eloquence of the éminence grise for the ECHR, Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC, to place reliance on Deweer v Belgium (1980) 2 EHRR 439? See some extra-judicial observations of Sir Anthony Clarke, The Future of Civil Mediations, (2008) 74 Arbitration 4 which suggests that we were wrong. Does CPR 26.4(2)(b) allow the court of its own initiative at any time, not just at the time of allocation, to direct a stay for mediation to be attempted, with the warning of the costs consequences, which Halsey did spell out and which should be rigorously applied, for unreasonably refusing to agree to ADR? Is a stay really “an unacceptable obstruction” to the parties right of access to the court if they have to wait a while before being allowed across the court’s threshold? Perhaps some bold judge will accede to an invitation to rule on these questions so that the court can have another look at Halsey in the light of the past 10 years of developments in this field.