The Court of Appeal dismissed the defendant's appeal against a decision of Judge Kershaw in the Mercantile Court in Manchester by which he awarded the plaintiff damages of pounds 11,023 plus interest and costs against the defendant in respect of a claim arising out of an oral agreement entered into in 1989.
The plaintiff, which was a manufacturer of fire extinguishers, had commenced proceedings against the defendant in connection with faulty valves supplied to it by the defendant for use in its manufacturing process. The plaintiff's case was that because of the defects in the valves it was entitled to treat the contract between them as repudiated. The last day of the hearing was 26 January 1996, but judgment was not delivered until 8 December 1997.
The defendant appealed, relying, inter alia, upon that 22-month period of delay, and contending that because of the delay, the judge had had insufficient recollection of the impression made by the various witnesses and of the closing submissions of defence counsel.
Eric Shannon (Haworth Holt Bell, Altrincham) for the plaintiff; Charles Taylor (Sparrow & Sparrow, Bognor Regis) for the defendant.
Lord Woolf MR said that the present case was the second case to come before the Court of Appeal recently involving delay in giving judgment. In Goose v Wilson Sandford & Co and anor (unreported, 13 February 1998), Peter Gibson LJ had set out what could be the consequences of such delay. The circumstances which had occurred in the present case were not quite as serious as in that case, but could nevertheless be categorised as being intolerable and unacceptable.
Because of the allegations set out in the notice of appeal the court had written to the judge seeking his comments. He had fully accepted that the delay in delivering the judgment was not acceptable, but had referred to the particularly heavy burdens placed on him at the time by his judicial duties.
The judge, who had been responsible for establishing the Mercantile Court in Manchester, had to some extent been the victim of his own success, in that the court had attracted more work than he could properly handle himself. He had not drawn attention to his difficulties but had tried to take on a burden which had proved to be excessive, and as a consequence the delay in the instant case, which could not be excused, had occurred.
In fairness to the judge it should be known that he had been subject to those pressures, but that did not mean that the parties to the appeal should suffer any more than they already had. The fact that such delays had occurred in more than one case was not a matter which could be ignored by those responsible for the supervision of the administration of justice.
It was important that the public should be reassured to the extent that there had been put in place mechanisms which meant that if a judgment was being delayed for an inappropriate time, those responsible for supervision within the judiciary would be informed so that they could take steps to avoid a delay such as that in the present case occurring again.
That applied not only to judges at first instance but also to the Court of Appeal: in the normal event, it was intended that judgments should be delivered within six weeks of the end of the hearing of the appeal, although all sorts of circumstances, including other public duties, might mean that that time limit would be exceeded.
In the present case, the court had scrutinised the material before it in the light of the delay which had occurred, and had concluded that the judge's approach could not be faulted, and that he had been entitled to reach the conclusion he had reached.