In Walton v Pickerings Solicitors & Anor  EWCA Civ 602, the Court of Appeal overturned the High Court's decision and held that the Court has no power to backdate a claim form and must seal it with the date it was issued.
The claimant attended court on 20 July 2020 and provided copies of the claim form and the correct fee. He was told the claim form would be sealed later that day and be sent back to him so he could effect service on the defendants. Due to problems caused by Covid, by 25 November 2020, the sealed copy of the claim form had still not been issued and appeared to have been lost. Following communications with the Court, the claim form was eventually sealed between 30 November and 7 December 2020. However, the date of the seal had been backdated to 20 July 2020, therefore the four-month period in which a claim form must be served had already expired.
The claimant served the claim form on the defendants on 10 December 2020 and applied to the Court for a "retrospective extension of time" for service. The High Court held that it had discretion under CPR 7.6 to extend the time but refused to do so on the basis that the claimant had not taken all reasonable steps or acted promptly in making the extension of time application.
The claimant appealed to the Court of Appeal on the ground that the Court had no power to backdate the claim form.
The Court of Appeal was critical of the lower Court's handling of this matter. It considered that simply reading the words of the rules by themselves was the most appropriate way to identify the Court's powers when issuing a claim form.
Proceedings start when the court issues the claim form, and until the claim form is sealed, it has not been issued. Looking at the wording in CPR 7.2, "the rules treat the act of sealing the claim form and the issue of the claim form as a single act which takes place at the same time. There is no express power to seal the claim form with a date other than that on which it is in fact sealed." The rule equally cannot be read as conferring a discretionary power to that effect. The Court held that an interpretation of the rules to give the Court the power to backdate the date of issue should not be adopted unless there is a compelling reason why the Court should "cut down, or even eliminate altogether, the claimant's period for service". It found no compelling reason why the Court should be able to do this.
The Court stressed that the exact date the claim form is sealed, and therefore issued, determines when the clocks starts to run on the four-month period for service on the defendant. It therefore must be a true reflection of when the claim form was actually sealed.
The appeal was allowed and the Court declared that the claim form was served in time on the defendants.
This case reaffirms the Court's strict approach to service of a claim form. As it must be served within four months from the date of issue to comply with CPR 7.5, the Court should not unfairly disadvantage the claimant by restricting the time they have to fulfil that obligation unless there is good reason to do so.
The Court also noted that although the date of issue is significant in terms of service on the defendant, it is not significant for limitation purposes. If a claim form is received by a court office on a date earlier than the date it was issued by the court, the claim is started for limitation purposes on the earlier date.
With thanks to Aimee Hardham for her assistance in preparing this post.
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