Sparkes v London Pension Funds Authority & Leigh Academies Trust [2021] EWHC 1265 (QB)

This post by Kate Boakes is about the recent decision of Mr Justice Murray by which he reversed Master Thornett’s dismissal of the Claimant’s non-party disclosure application in a mesothelioma claim arising out of alleged asbestos exposure in a school.

The Claimant was represented by Harry Steinberg QC and Aliyah Akram.

The claim

The facts are summarised at [6]-[10].

It was alleged that the Deceased was exposed to asbestos while working as a teacher between 1970 and 1975. It was said that asbestos was in the fabric of the school building and that the Deceased would “almost inevitably” have been exposed to asbestos during the construction of a new schoo l building in 1973.

The Defendant was the London Pension Funds Authority, which had inherited the relevant contingent liabilities. The Respondent to the disclosure application was the Leigh Academies Trust (“the Trust”) which, according to information obtained by the Claimant’s solicitors, had “boxes of old documents” relating to building and maintenance works at the school.

Disclosure requests

The background to the application is set out at [12]-[15]. The Claimant’s solicitors sought disclosure from the Trust and were provided with 46 pages of documents. They wrote to the Trust saying that they considered it likely that there were more relevant documents in the light of the information they had been given as to the quantity of documents the Trust held. They offered to attend the Trust’s site to inspect the documents. A representative of the Trust telephoned the Claimant’s solicitors and stated that it had provided all of the documents relevant to the 1970s. After consultation with counsel, the Claimant’s solicitors made a wider disclosure request for documents regarding building, maintenance, renovation, or demolition works at the School before and after the Deceased’s period of employment. There was no response to this request and a non-party disclosure application was filed pursuant to CPR 31.17.

Application hearing

The decision of Master Thornett is summarised at [16]-[26].

Master Thornett dismissed he application on the basis that it was too broad, vague, and unfocused. The Master held that it would impose a disproportionate and unfair burden on the Trust, particularly bearing in mind that it was a third party respondent. His overall conclusion was that:

“… this application is hopelessly vague and lacking in specificity. It is unworkable from a Respondent’s viewpoint and it is disproportionate to expect a third party to try to respond to it. … I cannot, sympathetic as I am to the principle as to how certain documentation could be relevant, today grant this application as it stands. Neither am I able to identify a shape or form of an order that could be intelligible.”

The appeal

The Claimant pursued four grounds of appeal which are set out at [33].

The Judge summarised the legal framework at [27]-[32] and the Claimant’s submissions at [34]-[44].

Murray J found for the Claimant on all four grounds. His reasons are at [45]-[53]:

“45. Acknowledging the broad discretion that the Master should be accorded in making a case management decision, I am nonetheless forced to the conclusion that he was wrong in his application of the test under CPR r 31.17(3) to the relevant facts, took into account irrelevant factors, gave insufficient weight to relevant factors, and failed to balance the relevant factors fairly in the scale. His decision was wrong, and therefore the Order had to be set aside.

[…]

51. For the reasons given by Mr Steinberg, documents regarding building, maintenance, renovation, or demolition works at the School, both before and after [the Deceased’s] period of employment, were potentially relevant, satisfying the “may well” test referred to in Three Rivers (No 4). Properly understood, the Disclosure Application did not seek to require the Trust to undertake a disproportionate, onerous, vague, or unfocused search. All the potentially relevant documents were in boxes at the School’s premises, and RWK was offering to pay copying costs or to attend and physically inspect the boxes themselves.

52. Moreover, it is clear that there was a reasonable possibility that in those boxes there would be documents that were decisive of the claim, one way or the other, and therefore that disclosure was necessary in order to dispose fairly of the claim and/or to save costs.

53. Because the Master appears to have misunderstood the scope of what was requested in the Disclosure Application, which in my view is clear from the statement supporting the Disclosure Application, he did not exercise his discretion on a proper basis and therefore made the wrong decision.”

Costs

Unusually, the Claimant was awarded the costs of making the application on the basis that the Trust had “not put forward any good reason why, from the end of October 2019 onwards it failed to engage with the appellant’s reasonable and several times repeated request for disclosure, which included reimbursing the Trust for its copying costs or attending to conduct a physical inspection, further minimising cost to the Trust.”

Comment

Applications of this sort are heard by Masters on the mesothelioma list day-in-day-out but it is rare for them to be considered in an appeal. This decision therefore provides a useful reminder of the legal framework and how those principles should be applied in practice.

In particular, it is a reminder of the threshold that is set by CPR r31.17(3), which is that documents “are likely to support the case…” if they “may well” do so as opposed to it being “more probable than not” that they will do so.

As per the Judge’s findings in this case, documents from an earlier period than the employment period may have showed asbestos being installed, or documents from a later period may have showed asbestos being removed. In either case, such documents “may well” have supported the Claimant’s case.

The decision also exemplifies the importance of giving a respondent to a non-party disclosure application adequate time to respond, or chasing for a response before issuing an application, and, where possible, of seeking to relieve the burden of compliance with the request by offering to pay for copying or even of attending to carry out the inspection. In this case, not only did the taking of these steps contribute to the success of the appeal, they also led to the Claimant recovering the costs of the application.

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