WHEN SHOULD A COURT GRANT AN ADJOURNMENT ON MEDICAL GROUNDS?
The English High Court considered this question recently in a case involving a lay litigant who alleged that a cognitive impairment meant that he was unable to properly conduct the proceedings (Decker v Hopcraft). The decision offers valuable guidance for courts and parties faced with similar applications. Though not binding on the Irish courts, it may be of persuasive authority.
In the substantive proceedings, the claimant, a lay litigant, is suing the defendant for defamation. In September/ October 2014, the defendant sought an order striking out certain parts of the claim and directing a trial of preliminary issues. The defendant's applications were initially scheduled to be heard on 10 December 2014. However, the lay litigant made repeated requests for adjournments, citing medical reasons. The defendant consented (or at least did not oppose) the first two requests and the hearing was adjourned to 23 April 2015. Shortly before this new hearing date, the lay litigant sought the defendant's consent to a further adjournment. When the defendant declined to consent, the lay litigant applied to the Court. He asked the Court to deal with the application in his absence on the basis that he was not well enough to attend.
Before considering the evidence, the Court set out the following guiding principles:
- A court should be hesitant to refuse an application by a lay litigant for an adjournment on medical grounds where this is the first such application.
- The decision whether or not to adjourn is one for the court to make and not one that can be forced upon it.
- The court must carefully scrutinise the medical evidence relied on in support of such an application.
- A person's inability to do his particular job is not necessarily an indication of his inability to attend court to deal with legal proceedings.
- The question of whether a litigant can or cannot effectively participate in a hearing may not have a straightforward 'yes/no' answer. It may be possible to make certain reasonable accommodations to enable effective participation.
- The question of whether effective participation is possible depends not only on the party's medical condition, but also on the nature of the hearing, the nature of the issues before the court, and the role the party is called on to undertake.
- The more clear-cut the case appears, the less likely it may be that proceeding in the absence of the lay litigant would be unjust.
- The court's approach will depend on whether the application in question is of a case management nature or a final determination on the merits where the right to a fair trial is engaged (e.g. striking out a claim or part of a claim). A more cautious approach is required in respect of cases falling within the latter category.
MEDICAL EVIDENCE – DETAIL REQUIRED
Referring to a 2012 decision of the English High Court, the Court said that the medical evidence relied on in support of an application for an adjournment on medical grounds should:
- identify the medical attendant and give details of his familiarity with the party's medical condition (detailing all recent consultations);
- identify with particularity what the party's medical condition is and the features of that condition which prevent participation in the trial process; and
- provide a reasoned prognosis which gives the Court confidence that what is being expressed is an independent opinion after a proper examination.
The lay litigant in this case provided the Court with a medical certificate issued by his GP which referred to a "cognitive impairment" and which stated that he was not fit to work. He also produced various other documents, including a letter from a Sleep Disorder Centre and graphs showing the results of tests carried out at the Centre.
The evidence, according to the Court, was "unimpressive". It did not address the lay litigant's ability to conduct a hearing. The Court stated that it does not automatically follow that a party who is unfit to attend work is also unfit to attend court. It further noted that the GP's certificate did not elaborate in any way on the nature of the 'cognitive impairment'. The judge said there were substantial reasons to be sceptical of some of the lay litigant's claims and commented that his correspondence with the defendant's solicitor suggested "a lively intelligence operating effectively" and showed that he was "clearly capable of functioning at a high level".
While the Court accepted that the lay litigant was suffering some cognitive impairment, it was not satisfied that he had established that he could not conduct the hearing adequately with, if necessary, reasonable accommodations for any difficulties he might experience. The Court therefore refused the application for an adjournment and proceeded to determine the defendant's applications in the absence of the lay litigant.
When involved in litigation with a lay litigant, you should be prepared to make certain allowances to take account of the fact that he/she may not be familiar with the court process. A reasonable approach should be adopted to requests for adjournments. In some circumstances, it may be best to agree to an adjournment to a specific date. However, if the lay litigant is persistently seeking adjournments, the court should be made aware of this. It can be useful in such cases to provide the court with a chronology of the proceedings. Where a lay litigant is citing medical reasons as the basis for an adjournment, this judgment of the English High Court may prove helpful in terms of the approach to be adopted.
This article contains a general summary of developments and is not a complete or definitive statement of the law. Specific legal advice should be obtained where appropriate.