Procedural requirements controlling access to the justice system – in particular time limits – may appear little more than nit-picking to a non-lawyer. However, as a High Court ruling in a planning case showed, they are anything but and failing to meet them can prevent a claim from even getting off the ground.
A company wished to challenge a decision of the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to dismiss its appeal against a local authority’s refusal of planning permission for a development of up to 197 new homes. From the date of the Secretary of State’s decision letter, the company had six weeks in which to file its claim and serve it on the government’s legal department.
The company did not have the benefit of professional legal representation when its planning director took on the task of filing the claim. He did so the day before the six-week time limit expired. He had some litigation experience but encountered various difficulties in filing the claim form online and paying the correct filing fee.
An experienced courier was eventually engaged and the claim form was deposited in the drop box provided in the public area of the Royal Courts of Justice (RCJ) at 15.45 on the day the deadline expired. Close of business at the RCJ is at 16.40. However, the drop box is routinely emptied only twice daily, the final collection being at 14.30.
The end result was that the claim form was not retrieved from the drop box, processed and formally issued by the Administrative Court Office (ACO) until the following day, by which time the deadline had passed. Due to the failure to meet the time limit, the Secretary of State contended that the claim should be dismissed, rather than being considered on its merits.
Ruling on the matter, the Court noted that the RCJ drop box is essentially a dedicated post box. The mere fact of posting a claim form into the drop box is not sufficient to constitute an act of filing a claim. The director was unaware of the way the drop box operated and so did not contact the ACO by email or telephone to arrange an urgent collection so that the claim form could be processed that day.
The reality was that the director had left it far too late to find out how to file the claim form properly, complete his preparation of the claim and then file it in court. He may have been busy doing other things, but that was not a sufficient explanation for the delay. It was not an exceptional case in which the time limit should be extended. In dismissing the claim, the Court found that it had no jurisdiction to consider it. The company was ordered to pay the Secretary of State’s legal costs.