Libel judgment signals trouble for litigants in person
In Parkes v Hall & Anr  Sir Nichol has addressed the protection offered to litigants-in-person in libel cases. His judgment has confirmed that litigants in person shall receive no special allowances in defamation cases and if they consistently fall foul of the court’s rules, they risk strikeout.
The case involved a claim in defamation which culminated in both defendants’ defences being struck out. The initial claim was issued on 30 September 2020 with defences then being issued by the defendants on 12 and 25 November 2020 respectively. These defences were held to be deficient by Master Dignall. The defendants then failed to file and serve adequate defences by the 15 January 2021 deadline set by the Master. The defendants were again granted the opportunity to file and serve defences by 23 July, but only one defendant filed a defence while the other defendant failed once more to file a defence. On 1 October 2021 (just over a year after the claim had been issued), the claimant applied to strike out the application.
In his judgment, Sir Nicholl stated that “although the defendants were litigants in person” it would be unacceptable to allow the continuation of the protracted case at hand. When taking into account the ‘considerable trouble’ Master Dignall had gone to when explaining the necessary elements of the defendants’ defences, and the leniency shown to the defendants in terms of timings, Sir Nicholl was brought to the conclusion that the defendants had failed to comply with the Master’s order. The judgment also made clear that the position of the claimant must be considered. A year long delay in a defamation claim is particularly undesirable, especially when this delay is caused by procedural errors from the defendants.
In refusing the first defendant’s application for relief from sanctions, the judge applied the three-stage test in Denton v T.H. White .
This approach can be summarised as follows:
Is the breach serious or significant: relief will usually be granted for breaches which are neither serious nor significant;
Consideration of why the default occurred (i.e. whether there is a good reason for it);
Consideration of all the circumstances of the case, so as to enable the court to deal justly with the application.
Sir Nicholl found that the breach of an Unless order following two other orders was serious and significant, especially when taking into account the necessity of proceeding with speed in defamation cases. The first defendant provided a witness statement with a range of explanations for the breach, many of which are commonly used by litigants in person in similar claims, such as the complexity of the litigation and the costs of legal assistance, but the judge held that none of these explanations would be sufficient in justifying the defendants’ actions.
The Supreme Court in Barton v Wright Hassall LLP  had previously decided that a litigant-in-person should be treated no differently to a legally represented party. However, in practice many practitioners are still bending to the requests of litigants-in-person or remain wary of the court’s perceived leniency towards their cause. Sir Nichol’s judgment has laid down a marker for the court’s stricter approach when dealing with litigants-in-person in libel claims.
This judgment is authority that the “serious and significant” test in Denton can come down heavily on litigants in person, especially when those involved are in time sensitive libel claims. Sir Nicholl also makes clear that the complexity of defamation claims is not an acceptable reason for litigants in person to continually apply for time extensions and sidestep the directions of the court.
Litigation lawyers, especially those in the defamation sphere, will be able to use this judgment as authority when dealing with uncooperative litigants in person and it highlights the advantages of obtaining legal representation in the face of a hardening attitude by the courts to litigants in person.