This was an appeal bought by Jet 2 Holidays Ltd. The appeal related to an application by the claimant for permission to bring committal proceedings against the defendant for contempt. Karl and Laura Hughes, the defendants, had intimated a claim against Jet 2 Holidays Ltd, the claimants, in relation to holiday sickness.
This case has had considerable reporting in tabloid newspapers due to the nature of the underlying claim. The defendants’ claim against Jet2 Holidays centred around alleged food poisoning that they stated they had contracted whilst on holiday in Lanzarote in 2016.
The defendants embarked upon their claim in April 2017. As part of the pre-action protocol, the defendants had served witness statements, verified by statements of truth, detailing the extent of their illness in April 2017. On receipt of the witness statements, the claimants carried out background research and located social media posts of the defendants enjoying various activities during periods when they had claimed they were ill. This evidence was presented to the defendants, and the claimant rejected the defendants’ claim.
The case was not issued or pursued further by the defendants.
In February 2018, the claimant commenced proceedings against the defendants, seeking permission to commence committal proceedings. The basis for the application was the service of the allegedly false witness statements, submitted as part of the pre-action protocol. The defendants filed acknowledgements of service stating that they wished to defend the claim. The defendants stood by their original witness statements.
Consent was given for those committal proceedings to be made. A case management conference took place in October 2019, before HHJ Owen QC. At that hearing, the judge queried whether the court had jurisdiction to even entertain the committal proceedings due to the fact that the witness statements had not been made in connection with existing proceedings, and no claim for damages had ever started. He ordered that this point was to be determined as a preliminary issue.
The preliminary issue was heard by Owen J on 13 November 2018, together with the claimant’s application to amend their claim, adding further grounds of contempt.
First, Owen J considered CPR 32.14, which states:
“Proceedings for contempt of Court may be brought against the person if he makes, or causes to be made, a false statement in a document verified by a statement of truth without an honest belief in its truth.”
Owen J went on to comment:
“… a statement of truth under Part 22 is concerned with a statement which is made and presented to Court and that any such witness statement should be served within actual proceedings.”
He rejected the claimant’s application for three reasons:
(1) “It would be oppressive and contrary to the overriding objective to grant amendments to allow committal proceedings to be continued in circumstances where they ought never to have been brought;
(2) the false statements were not persisted in as no claim for damages had been made;
3) it would not be in the public interest to allow any amendment and to permit the proposed proceedings.”
The claimants appealed the judgment. The appeal was heard by the Master of the Rolls, Hamblen LJ, and Flaux LJ. Judgment was delivered on 8 November 2019.
The court considered the jurisdiction argument as raised by Owens J. They agreed with Owen J that jurisdiction for committal was not conferred on the Court by CPR 32.14, and that witness statements made before the commencement of proceedings do not fall within CPR 32.14. However, at paragraph 27 of their judgment, it is stated:
“Irrespective of the Civil Procedure Rules, however, the Court has an inherent power to commit for contempt.”
That inherent power is expressly recognised in CPR 81.2(3) and they went on to state at paragraph 29:
“The test at common law is whether the conduct in question involves an interference with the due administration of justice either in a particular case or more generally as a continuing process.”
In order to support that assertion, they quoted the case of Attorney General v Newspaper Publishing plc.
The appeal judges then went on to say that due to the fact that the witness statements were made in accordance with a pre-action protocol (albeit the incorrect pre-action protocol):
“… [the defendants] used the witness statements to indicate… the oral evidence which they would give in proceedings and the verification of truth gave solemnity to that indication.
A dishonest witness statement served in purported compliance with a PAP is capable of interfering with the due administration of justice for the purpose of engaging the jurisdiction to commit for contempt because PAPs are now an integral and highly important part of litigation architecture.”
Accordingly, the judges found that if the witness statements provided by the defendants were found to be false, the service of those false witness statements interfered with the administration of justice. Therefore, the court had jurisdiction to commit the defendants for contempt. The appeal was allowed.
Notes to practitioners
Due to the changing nature of the CPR over the last 15 years, it has become commonplace to frontload a case and ensure that detailed witness statements are taken early during the retainer. Clients should be warned immediately at the outset of the case about contempt of court and the ramifications of signing a statement of truth.
It is perhaps also important for practitioners to test that evidence thoroughly before pursuing a claim. In this era of social media, relevant evidence will likely be available at the outset of a case. This is yet another example of a case that ended due to social media posts, and a solicitor should carry out due diligence before advising a client of the merits of a claim.