Law chief hits out at litigants 'who won't take no for answer'

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The Independent Online

Almost a third of some cases heard in the Court of Appeal are brought by litigants who make hopeless arguments and have no chance of success, the Master of the Rolls, Lord Philips of Worth Matravers, said at a gathering of international lawyers this week.

Lord Philips, who takes over from Lord Woolf as the Lord Chief Justice on Monday, becoming the most senior judge in England and Wales, said that "obsessive litigants who won't take no for an answer" were an enormous problem for the Court of Appeal.

In one case he said the court had to issue a "civil restraint order" against a litigant who sued or threatended to sue 13 lawyers involved with his case.

He said in the days when he practised at the Bar, unrepresented litigants happily accepted judge's rulings. "Well, things have changed. There has been, certainly in England, an enormous growth in litigants who simply won't take no for an answer." He said this cost the courts both time and money.

Lord Philips blamed two causes for the emergence of the new class of obsessive litigant: "Part of the problem certainly in England, and I suspect in common-law countries, is the reduction in the grant of legal aid, which means we have many more litigants in person."

He explained: "If you don't have a lawyer who's putting your case for you and able to explain why it is you lost, then it is very much easier to say you haven't had justice because you case hasn't been understood."

Lord Philips said a second influence on the emergence of obsessive litigants is the "growth in the rights culture". He said there was an increasing "resort to litigation, particularly in fields of public law ... which had opened up new avenues for those suffering or potentially suffering from paranoid feelings."

Earlier, a leading psychiatrist told the International Bar Association's annual conference in Prague, attended by 8,000 lawyers and their families, that obsessive litigants were often paranoid schizophrenics or suffering from other personality disorders.

Dr Frank McManus, a consultant psychiatrist and adviser to the UK surgeon general, said they often ended up causing more harm to themselves.

Characteristics included high levels of delusion, self-hate, and a need to give meaning to an empty life.

But he said that because they did not accept their conditions nor present a danger to themselves or others, they escaped the attentions of the mental health system.

Lord Philips said to reduce the cost and judicial manpower needed to hear the cases of obsessive litigants, the court had introduced a requirement to have permission to appeal at all levels. "But the application to have permission carries with it a right to have an oral hearing. So it turns into a mini-appeal process. It takes a lot of court time."

He added: "Nearly 40 per cent of applications for permission to appeal are being brought by litigants in person. The vast majority of those, about 90 per cent, are cases in which we refuse permission to appeal on grounds that there is no arguable case and of those where we refuse permission there are a very large number where we say that the application is wholly without merit."