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By S
27/01/2012

Vexatious litigants in the LVT

In Attorney General v Singer & Singer, Divisional Court, January 24, 2012 [taken from a lawtel note – not on bailii], the Attorney General sought a civil proceedings order, under s.42, Senior Courts Act 1981, against Mr & Mrs Singer. The effect of such an order is that no civil proceedings or civil applications may be made by the person subject to the order without the leave of the High Court. The High Court may make such an order, on an application by the Attorney General, if satisfied that a person has habitually and persistently instituted vexatious civil proceedings or applications in either the High Court or any inferior court.

Mrs Singer was the long leaseholder of a flat within a block of 30 flats. She, and her husband, had (as described by the lawtel note) “a long running service charge dispute” with the management company responsible for managing the block, albeit it appears that Mr Singer often conducted the litigation on Mrs Singer’s behalf.

This dispute resulted in the Singers making more than 30 applications to the LVT, the county and magistrates’ courts arising from the service charge. The Divisional Court noted, while the Singers had had limited success in the LVT, they had none in the county or magistrates’ courts and the applications rarely had any basis in law, tended to repeat arguments that already been unsuccessful and were often branded as being without merit. The appeals they pursued were also unsuccessful. The LVT, on their most recent application, had decided that the application was an abuse of process and vexatious. Not only that, Mr Singer had been prosecuted for harassment.

It followed that the Divisional Court had no doubt that the Singers satisfied the second limb of the test. The real question for them to decide appears to have been whether applications in the LVT were civil applications and if the LVT was an inferior court. Both questions were answered in the affirmative. The purpose of the LVT was to resolve proprietary disputes which would otherwise have been dealt with by the civil courts. Importantly the court noted that the county court could transfer proceedings to the LVT. Its functions were therefore plainly judicial in nature and it was also noted that the Court of Appeal had previously decided that the LVT and Lands Tribunal were courts for the purposes of Article 6 of the Convention (R (Sinclair Gardens Investments (Kensington Ltd) v Lands Tribunal [2005] EWCA Civ 1305).

The Divisional Court decided to exercise their discretion and make the order. There was no sign of the Singers’ behaviour abating. Despite the fact that it was Mr Singer who had mainly conducted the litigation, it was also appropriate to make an order against Mrs Singer because it was she who had signed the applications.

Comment

This decision would appear to be fairly uncontroversial. However, one can see that the damage had already been done before the Attorney General got involved and (even with this new rather interventionist Attorney General) it is likely to be a rare case where he deems conduct to be serious enough to warrant him getting involved.

However, in the county court there should be no need for the Attorney General to get involved. Under CPR3.11, the county courts have the power to make a civil restraint order against vexatious litigants. Of course the CPR is of no application in the LVT and the LVT procedure regulations do not give LVTs the power to make similar orders. It would appear therefore that the LVT’s hands are tied.

Yet, such orders are not a species of the CPR, but rather stem from the 19th century authority Grepe v Loam (1888) L.R. 37 Ch. D. 168. In Bhamjee v Forsdick [2003] EWCA Civ 1113, the Court of Appeal affirmed the principle that there is a power vested in every court (not just the High Court) to protect its processes from an abuse of process. This begs the question: if the LVT is an inferior court does it not have the power to make an order barring vexatious applicants from making future applications?

S is a barrister, based in London, who practices predominantly in housing and local government law.

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