The Court’s Approach to Extensions of Time during the Coronavirus Pandemic

Greg Porter, dispute resolution specialist and Partner at Butcher & Barlow’s Northwich office, considers the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the Court system, and what this means for your case.

The problems

As covered in my article “The Court Process Explained – Part 2”, one of the first steps the Court takes in managing a claim once a Defence has been filed is to make a series of Directions setting out the steps the parties are required to take to ensure to the claim is ready for trial.

Depending upon the type of claim, the Court will usually make Directions requiring the parties to undertake Disclosure of Documents, serve Witness Statements and deal with Expert Evidence. The Directions Order will specific a date by which each step is to take place. If a party fails to undertake a step by the specified date the Court can impose sanctions, including ordering the party in default to pay adverse costs or even striking out their claim/defence.

As one may anticipate, a crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic can make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a Claimant or Defendant to comply with the Court’s Directions (which are likely to have been made before coronavirus emerged). This is particularly the case in Personal Injury and Clinical Negligence claims where much of the evidence has to be provided by medical experts (who are almost always senior Consultants in their fields) at a time when they are concentrating all their efforts on providing front-line medical care.

Is there a solution?

So what approach does the Court take when a party requires more time to comply with a Direction?

Rule 3.8(4) of the Civil Procedure Rules provides that the parties may agree between themselves to extend time for compliance with a direction by up to 28 days provided the extension does not put a hearing date at risk.

If a party requires a lengthier extension of time, the party must apply to the Court prior to the expiry of the existing time limit. The Court will then consider the application and decide whether or not the application should be granted.

It has, however, been recognised that the existing rules may be inadequate for the coronavirus crisis. If the country remains in “lockdown” for a significant period of time, it is likely that the permitted 28-day extension will be too short, causing the Court to be “swamped” with applications for extensions of time.

On 1st April 2020 the 118th Update to the Civil Procedure Rules was brought into force. This introduced a temporary amendment to CPR 3.8(4) allowing the parties to agree extensions to directions of up to 56 days without the permission of the Court.

The amendment also provides that any application for extensions of time beyond 56 days will be considered on paper (as opposed to at a Court hearing) in the first instance. The Court will also take into account the impact of the coronavirus pandemic when considering applications for extensions of time, adjournments of hearings and relief from sanctions. These amendments will remain in force until 30th October 2020 unless this date is extended in due course.

It therefore seems that the Court will take into account the difficulties the parties may experience complying with directions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

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Butcher & Barlow have a team of Dispute Resolution specialists who are happy to assist whatever your circumstances. Although in accordance with Government guidelines, our offices remain closed, the Dispute Resolution team remain available for advice and guidance on any existing or new matter. Please do not hesitate to get in touch via enquiries@butcher-barlow.co.uk or email your legal adviser directly.

To view Butcher & Barlow’s own working practices, please visit www.butcher-barlow.co.uk/news.