NI: Attempt to sue civil servants for acts of Land and Property Services deemed vexatious and abuse of process

A man has had his applications against the former CEO of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, the former CEO of the Land and Property Services, and two civil servants struck out on the basis the action failed to disclose a reasonable cause of action, was frivolous and vexatious or was otherwise an abuse of process.

The man, identified as Greg Foster, A Man and One of the People, filed applications against John McPeake of the Housing Executive, John Wilkinson of the Land and Property Services, and Mervyn Adairand Brian McCann, two staff members of the Land and Property Services.

The application concerned two incidents. In the first incident, a property owned by the plaintiff was subjected to a compulsory purchase order. Due to the house being in negative equity, the final amount of £74,000 was paid straight to the mortgage company and left the plaintiff in debt.

The second incident related to another property, in respect of which the plaintiff stopped paying rates bills. He was taken to court for non-payment and the case came to the Enforcement of Judgments Office. As a result of the plaintiff’s behaviour before Master Wells, the Master referred to the matter to Mr Justice Stephens to deal with the plaintiff’s contempt of court.

The case against John Peake concerned the first incident, and the plaintiff alleged that Mr Peake committed trespass, theft and demolition of the property. Mr Peake sought to have the application struck out for failure to serve a Statement of Claim.

Master Bell found that the changed legal landscape had increasingly led to personal litigants appearing unrepresented, as Mr Foster did in this case. He noted that the general approach adopted by the courts was to give such personal litigants the benefit of any lack of clarity, citing Mehta v. Mayer Brown Rowe and Maw (a firm) and another EWHC 1689 (QB); Merelie v. Newcastle Primary Care Trust EWHC 150 (Q.B.); and Pousson v. British Telecommunications plc All E.R. (D) 34 (Aug).

However, Master Bell then noted Order 18 Rule 19 of the Rules of the Court of Judicature, which allows the Court to strike out applications which disclose no reasonable cause of action, are scandalous, frivolous or vexatious, or are otherwise an abuse of the process of the court.

He identified the law as requiring him first to consider whether the plaintiff’s claim ought to be struck out on the ground that it discloses no reasonable cause of action, then whether the claim was frivolous or vexatious.

Citing Rush v Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Secretary of State NIQB 28, he noted that the mere fact that a case was weak and not likely to succeed was not enough ground for striking out. Rather, following Lonrho v Al Fayed 1 AC 448, it must be unarguable or almost incontestably bad.

In the present case, he found that “civil servants and public officials can only rarely be held individually accountable for actions which are performed on behalf of government departments and public agencies. The principal mechanism for doing so is the tort of misconduct in public office. The plaintiff has not alleged that tort against Mr McPeake.”

As the plaintiff’s Statement of Claim contained no allegations of facts which would give rise to a reasonable cause of action against Mr McPeake, the action was struck out.

Citing Attorney General of Duchy of Lancaster v L&NW Railways 3 Ch. 274, Master Bell found that the case also constituted a frivolous or vexatious case.

Master Bell observed that the application possessed a number of features which he discussed in The Man Known as Anthony : Parker v The Man Known as Ian McKenna And The Enforcement of Judgments Office NIMaster1.

In this judgment he had referred to the Canadian case of Meads v Meads ABQB 571, which discussed a particular category of vexatious litigant, sometimes known as “Freemen”, who “employ a collection of techniques and arguments promoted and sold by others to disrupt court operations and to attempt to frustrate the legal rights of governments, corporations, and individuals”.

Master Bell observed that the current case resembled this type of litigation. He noted Mr Foster’s odd mode of identification, and assertions that “enforcing statute on a man without his consent, when he has caused no harm or broken no contract is slavery” and “as one of the people I do not yield my sovereignty to the agencies of government that serve the people”.

Master Bell found that the “arguments the plaintiff has advanced have no effect or meaning in Northern Ireland law”.

In relation to the second, third and fourth defendants, Master Bell considered the specific torts alleged by the plaintiff.

In relation to Mr Wilkinson, the same torts were alleged as were alleged against Mr McPeake, and were dismissed on the same grounds. Although Mr Wilkinson was Chief Executive Officer of Land and Property Services at the time of the compulsory purchase, he played no role in the valuation or vesting.

Mr Wilkinson, Mr Adair and Mr McCann were all accused of “Exceeding Jurisdiction”, which was struck out as it was not an existing tort and therefore not a reasonable cause of action. The accusation of “Non-payment of Bills” was also struck out on these grounds.

All three were also accused of Misconduct in Public Office. FollowingWatkins v Secretary of State for the Home Department and Others UKHL 17, this was found to have three ingredients: the defendant must be a public officer, exercising their power as a public officer, either specifically to injure the plaintiff or knowing that they had no power to do the act complained of and knowing that the act would probably cause injury.

It was found that although the third and fourth defendants had played minor roles in the second incident outlined above, there were no facts alleged to suggest that the third ingredient of the tort was present in respect of any of the defendants.

The accusation of Defamation was struck out on similar grounds; that the Statement of Claim contained no allegations of facts which could support the claim.

Master Bell noted that: “This part of the litigation is simply an attempt to litigate matters in connection with the plaintiff’s unpaid rates bill. The defendants are civil servants. There is no allegation of any action that goes beyond the dispassionate fulfilment of their employment responsibilities. In that regard, bringing proceedings against Mr Wilkinson, Mr Adair and Mr McCann in respect of acts done by their organisation is frivolous or vexatious and it is otherwise an abuse of process.”

Mr McCann was also accused of “Malicious Prosecution”, relating to the plaintiff’s reference by Master Wells to Mr Justice Stephens for contempt of court. Master Bell found that it was not possible to bring an action against Mr McCann in respect of a judicial decision made by Master Wells, and that there was no reasonable cause of action, as well as being frivolous or vexatious and otherwise an abuse of process.

Finally, the plaintiff alleged that Mr Adair committed fraud by signing a document which misrepresented itself as a court summons.

Master Bell found that: “Even if a court were to view the wording on the document as somewhat misleading… it does not provide the plaintiff with a basis for bringing civil proceedings for fraud against an individual civil servant responsible for processing the documents as part of his or her daily responsibilities. It is therefore also appropriate to strike out this element of the plaintiff’s Statement of Claim as frivolous or vexatious and otherwise an abuse of process.”

Concluding, he observed that while “everyone will sympathise with someone in the situation where a compulsory purchase order is made in respect of property in negative equity, I must, for the reasons set out above, grant both applications and strike out the plaintiff’s hopeless action before any more public money is wasted defending it”.

  • by Rachel Killean for Irish Legal News
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