The COVID-19 pandemic inevitably caused disruption to the civil justice system – but to what extent, if any, could that justify failures to meet legal deadlines? The Court of Appeal considered that burning issue in the context of an art market dispute.
The case concerned the sale of an artefact for $3 million on the basis that it was of ancient Greek origin. The purchasers subsequently asserted that it was a fake and issued a claim against the vendor – an overseas art and antiques dealer – seeking return of the purchase price and damages. The claim was issued two days prior to the expiry of the six-year limitation period that applies to such cases.
Under the rules of civil procedure, the claim had to be served on the vendor outside the jurisdiction within six months of it being issued. A judge extended that time limit by a further four months. The claim was served within that extended period, but the vendor subsequently succeeded in having the extension decision set aside. That meant that the claim had been served out of time and was therefore vulnerable to being struck out for delay.
In challenging that outcome, the purchasers argued that the delay in service beyond the initial six-month period was caused by disruption to court business arising from the pandemic. It pointed out that, for much of the relevant period, the High Court’s Foreign Process Section (FPS), which is responsible for serving proceedings outside the jurisdiction, was closed in response to COVID-19.
Rejecting the appeal, however, the Court found that the closure of the FPS was not a reason, let alone the reason, for the purchasers needing to apply for an extension of time. They would have needed to do so in any event because they were already up against the deadline for service. The FPS’s closure merely added to their existing difficulties and there was no evidence before the judge indicating that general disruption to court business had caused the delay.