The court’s power to restrain unreasonable behaviour

An interesting recent case is A Local Authority v TA & Others [2021] EWCOP 3. It discusses the law around recording court hearings and shows the wide power the court has to restrain a litigant’s unreasonable behaviour in the wider court process.

This case concerned an elderly woman, GA, who has dementia and was represented by the Official Solicitor. She was cared for at home by her adult son TA. The court was concerned about the negative impact on the proceedings by the actions and conduct of TA and examined two issues 

  • If TA should be permitted to record the court hearings
  • the extent to which the court had power to restrict his communications with the court office. 

Background 

In March 2019 the local authority responsible for meeting GA’s needs under the Care Act 2014 brought proceedings under the Mental Capacity Act 2005. 

TA wanted to record the hearings, essentially for his ‘own protection and benefit’ as the local authority employees were ‘pathological liars’ and he had suffered bullying and intimidation from ‘many’ judges. He also objected to the costs of a transcript and pointed out the common delays in obtaining one. 

TA’s application was opposed on the basis that the widely recognised default position against recording should be recognised and there was a risk that TA would publish the recordings on the internet, as he had done in the past. 

The Judge advised TA that it was possible to be supported in the court proceedings by a McKenzie friend or the services of ‘Support Through Court’. TA could apply to the court for a transcript and in exceptional circumstances, such as wishing to correct an inaccuracy in the transcript, could listen to the official audio recording. (Practice Direction: (Audio Recording of Proceedings: Access) [2014] 1 WLR 632 (considered and confirmed recently in Dring v Cape Intermediate Holdings Ltd. [2019] UKSC 38) at [25]). The Judge indicated he would not grant permission to record, whereupon TA terminated his link to the remote hearing. 

Recording court proceedings

The Judge noted that the Court of Protection is not specifically included (see section 85D(2) Courts Act 2003) in the list of courts to which section 55 and schedule 25 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 (‘the 2020 Act’) applies.  The 2020 Actintroduced new statutory provisions (sections 85A-85D) into the Courts Act 2003 which allows the court to direct a recording of the proceedings and creates a criminal offence for a person to make or attempt to make an unauthorised recording 

However, the guidance ‘Remote Access to the Court of Protection’ issued in March 2020 advised that the terms of the statutory criminal prohibitions were to be included in every standard order thereafter, and had been included in all orders in these proceedings. 

Section 9 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 in addition makes it a contempt of court to record a hearing without the permission of the Judge. There is a discretion under the civil law to permit recording (Practice Direction (Tape Recorders) [1981] 1 WLR 1526) if the applicant had a ‘reasonable need’. The Judge found TA had no such need, having a very good, even ‘extraordinary’ grasp of the procedures, documents and issues engaged. 

These proceedings were also subject to ‘Transparency Order’ which prohibits the reporting of any material which identifies, or is likely to identify, that GA is the subject of proceedings; any person as a member of the family of GA; that A Local Authority is a party; and where GA lives. The content of video-recordings which relates to these proceedings is controlled by s.12(1)(b) of the Administration of Justice Act 1960 and may not be published unless publication falls withinthe exceptions contained in Practice Direction 4Aparagraphs 33 to 37.  

The court endorsed the definition of ‘publication’ set out by Munby J (as he then was) in re B [2004] EWCH 411 para 82(iii) as anything the law of defamation would treat as a publication, thus covering most forms of dissemination either oral or written. 

Order restricting communication with the court office

TA had been engaged in litigation concerning GA for approximately two years and the nature of his correspondence to the local authority was ‘abusive and inflammatory’ to such an extent that the local authority deemed TA a ‘vexatious complainant’ in March 2019 in line with the Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman’s guidance on managing unreasonable complaint behaviour. The decision was reviewed but ultimately extended until 12 September 2021 as TA refused to accept limits to his behaviour. 

By the latter part of 2020, TA’s behaviour had extended to the Court of Protection court office. The Operations Manager noted excessive email traffic generated by TA who copied in ‘100s’ of other recipients, along with excessive telephone calls with abusive comments, primarily directed at the judiciary. Further, TA made 39 COP9 applications over a 24 month period.

TA dismissed the evidence of the Operations Manager, describing the statement as a “badly drafted pathetic attempt at a fraudulent witness statement”.  He did not deny the volume of his correspondence but sought to justify it on the basis that HMCTS staff were engaged in a deliberate attempt to pervert the course of justice, in collaboration with the judiciary. 

The court found no justification for the volume and nature of the correspondence from TA. It was wholly disproportionate and no doubt a significant distraction for the court staff. The court cited the obiter remarks of King LJ in Agarwala v Agarwala [2016] EWCA Civ 1252 which considered general judicial case management powers to regulate communications with the court to avoid ‘a torrent of informal, unfocussed emails’Support for this approach was further located in the Court of Appeal’s judgment in Attorney-General v Ebert [2002] 2 All ER 789 where Brooke LJ observed at para 35 that by exercise of the inherent jurisdiction, the court’s supervisory role extends to the regulation of the manner in which the court process may in general be exercised, including the power to restrain litigants from wasting the time of court staff and disturbing the orderly conduct of court processes in ‘completely obsessive pursuit of their own litigation’. 

The court therefore proposed to make the ‘exceptional’ order of restraining TA from communicating with the court office by email and telephone. TA could continue to send letters if necessary, but he could not expect a response if his correspondence was abusive. While Brooke LJ contemplated the exercise of the inherent jurisdiction, the court proposed to rely on section 47(1) Mental Capacity Act 2005.

A penal notice was attached to the injunction. 

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