Follow us

The Court of Appeal has upheld a decision refusing to strike out a claim form in which 134 claimants are bringing professional negligence claims against a firm of solicitors relating to investments in development projects promoted by the same group of companies: Morris v Williams & Co Solicitors (A Firm) [2024] EWCA Civ 376.

The decision clarifies the circumstances in which multiple claimants can bring claims using a single claim form. Essentially the court refused to add a gloss to the "convenience" test under CPR 7.3, which states that a claimant "may use a single claim form to start all claims which can be conveniently disposed of in the same proceedings”. There is no further test, and in particular no requirement to show that a determination of common issues would bind all or most of the claimants. The court commented that the "convenience" test would be met in cases covered by the test that applied before the introduction of the Civil Procedure Rules (CPR) in 1999, namely where there are common questions of law or fact and the claims relate to or arose out of the same transaction or series of transactions - but that is not exhaustive.

Interestingly, however, the court suggested that the CPR Committee might usefully look at the current rules with a view to considering whether they are working well or whether they should include a requirement for common questions of law or fact to be identified, as in the pre-CPR test. So it is possible that the test for when multiple claimants can use a single claim form may be tightened in future.

The court also commented that defendants to group actions initiated by a single claim form may face potential unfairness in the absence of active case management, in that (for example) it may not be clear why a single claim form is justified, and the page and document limits which apply to initial disclosure in the Business and Property Courts might enable claimants to withhold key documents at the early stages of the case. The court emphasised the need for active case management and proper engagement with the court to mitigate these risks, commenting that:

"Every possible step should be taken in such a situation to ensure that each claimant’s case is properly explained so that the defendant knows the case it has to meet, and so as to facilitate early dispute resolution."

Although it is not discussed in the judgment, a key related aspect of case management will be the need to consider in each case the extent to which the claimants must particularise their individual claims and at what stage.

The court also commented that its decision should not be taken as discouraging the use of Group Litigation Orders (GLOs), which it described as a "very useful and desirable procedure in many cases". It suggested that the parties and the court should consider in every case started by multiple claimants using a single claim form whether it would be appropriate to apply for a GLO, which has various advantages including that the “common or related issues of fact or law” required for a GLO must be specified.

Background

In this case, the 134 claimants were investors in one or more of nine separate development projects promoted by Northern Powerhouse Development Ltd, operating through associated companies. Northern Powerhouse nominated the defendant solicitors to act for and advise the potential investors in each of the projects, who were to be granted leases of units in the developments.

When each of the claimants instructed the defendants, they were provided with a standard pack of documents, including a client care letter and standard terms and conditions of the retainer, which were (the claimants said) essentially the same despite some variation in wording. Ultimately the development projects did not complete and the claimants lost their investment deposits which had been guaranteed by associated companies without sufficient assets to honour them.

The claimants issued a single claim form against the defendant solicitors seeking damages for professional negligence on the basis that that the defendants had failed to warn them of the risks of completion not taking place, and of the dissipation of their investment deposits in the meantime.

The High Court dismissed the defendant's application to strike out the claim form on the ground that it was an abuse of process or an obstruction to the just disposal of the proceedings, or that the claim form did not comply with CPR 7.3. The judge held that there were significant common issues in the cases, though there were also individual issues such as reliance and advice from other professionals. Applying Abbott v Ministry of Defence [2023] EWHC 1475 (KB), he concluded that there was sufficient commonality for the claims to proceed conveniently under one claim form.

The defendant appealed, arguing that the ability for numerous claimants to bring separate claims in one claim form is strictly curtailed because the reference to "a claimant" in CPR 7.3 is singular and does not, in the context, include the plural and because the reference to "a claim" in CPR 19.1 (which provides that any number of claimants or defendants may be joined as parties to a claim) means “a cause of action” and not, as the Divisional Court held in Abbott, “proceedings”. In any event, the defendant argued that, for multiple claimants to use a single claim form, the trial of common issues would have to produce a binding determination on all parties.

The defendant contended that it was inconvenient and unfair for the 134 claimants to group together their disparate claims, that the process had already led to inadequate disclosure, and that it would lead to the defendant being unable properly to defend itself.

Decision

The Court of Appeal dismissed the defendant's appeal. Sir Geoffrey Vos, Master of the Rolls (MR), gave the leading judgment, with which Lewison and Falk LJJ agreed.

It was clear that a reference to "a claimant” in CPR 7.3 could be read under section 6(c) of the Interpretation Act 1978 as including the plural, and that in the context of CPR 19.1 "a claim" meant "proceedings" rather than "cause of action".

As for when claims can be "conveniently disposed of in the same proceedings”, as required by CPR 7.3, the MR said there was no need for the courts to define the meaning of a simple English word such as “conveniently”.

None of the three tests said to be promulgated in Abbott were appropriate to exclude the ability to bring multiple claims in a single claim form, ie: the real progress test (whether there were likely to be common issues of sufficient significance that their determination would constitute "real progress" toward the final determination of each claim); the real significance test (whether there was sufficient commonality for the decisions made to be of "real significance" for all the rest); or the requirement that a determination of common issues would bind all parties. The MR commented:

"It seems to me that 19.1 and 7.3 must be construed as meaning what they say: any number of claimants or defendants may be joined as parties to proceedings, and claimants may use a single claim form to start all claims which can be conveniently disposed of in the same proceedings. There is no exclusionary rule of real progress, real significance or otherwise. The court will determine what is convenient according to the facts of every case."

However, it was clear that the circumstances in which the convenience test would be met included those described in Order 15 rule 4 in the Rules of the Supreme Court (before the introduction of the Civil Procedure Rules in 1999). This referred to where common questions of law or fact arise in all the claims, and the claims are in respect of or arise out of the same transaction or series of transactions. The convenience test would probably also be met where common issues would bind all or most of the claimants, but that was not a requirement of the CPR.

The MR noted that the matters considered in Abbott might be relevant to whether it was convenient to bring claims in a single claim form, but the relevant factors would vary between cases and the Court of Appeal should not confine the discretion of judges to decide what is convenient for the purposes of the rule.

In the present case, the court did not accept that it was inconvenient or unfair for the claimants’ claims to be grouped together in one claim form. However, it did accept that defendants to group actions initiated by a single claim form may face potential unfairness in the absence of active case management. For example, the circumstances that justify a single claim form might not be clearly identified, and the page and document limits for Initial Disclosure in cases in the Business and Property Courts might allow claimants to withhold key documents at the early stages of a case. The MR commented:

"Every possible step should be taken in such a situation to ensure that each claimant’s case is properly explained so that the defendant knows the case it has to meet, and so as to facilitate early dispute resolution."

Alan Watts photo

Alan Watts

Partner, Global Co-Head of Class Actions and Co-Head of Partnerships, London

Alan Watts
Will Glassey photo

Will Glassey

Partner, London

Will Glassey
Maura McIntosh photo

Maura McIntosh

Professional Support Consultant, London

Maura McIntosh

Related categories

Key contacts

Alan Watts photo

Alan Watts

Partner, Global Co-Head of Class Actions and Co-Head of Partnerships, London

Alan Watts
Will Glassey photo

Will Glassey

Partner, London

Will Glassey
Maura McIntosh photo

Maura McIntosh

Professional Support Consultant, London

Maura McIntosh
Alan Watts Will Glassey Maura McIntosh