In R (Good Law Project) v Secretary of State for Health and Social Care  EWHC 1782 (TCC) the High Court held that serving an unsealed claim form did not constitute valid service and emphasised the significance of sending a sealed claim form to correct service address within the time limit set out in Part 7.5 of the Civil Procedure Rules (CPR).
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What is Service of a Claim Form in litigation?
Service is critical as it is the method by which documents used in court proceedings are brought to a party’s attention. The claim form is the form that commences litigation proceedings and as a result is an important legal document. Part 6 of the Civil Procedure Rules sets out guidance on service.
How should a claim form be served?
Service can be in person or by first class post, document exchange, fax or email along with other methods. CPR Rule 6.7 allows service in a solicitor instructed by a defendant but only if the solicitor has indicated it is instructed to accept service at its business address. In the instant case that never happened and no attempt to serve was made directly on the defendant.
Good Law Project (the Claimant) sought to challenge the lawfulness of the UK government’s decision to award Pharmaceuticals Direct (the interested party) certain contracts for the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE). The grounds of challenge were breach of the duties of equal treatment and transparency contrary to the Public Contracts Regulations (“PCR 2015”) and breach of the common law duty to act without apparent bias.
The claimant’s solicitors sent a copy of the unsealed copy of the claim form to the Defendant before it was issued by the court on 28 April 2021. They then sent the sealed claim form via email to three individuals of the Government Legal Department (GLD).
However, the claim form was meant to be served on the treasury solicitor of GLD at a different email address by the deadline of 5 May 2021. This prompted the GDL to raise the issue of validity of service of the claim form on 6 May 2021.
The claimant then attempted to rectify its error by serving the sealed claim form to the treasury solicitor via the correct email address on 6 May 2021 and by serving the sealed claim form and bundle to Pharmaceuticals Direct via recorded delivery on 13 May 2021.
The claimant then sought an application pursuant to Part 6.15 of the CPR to show that the steps taken to alert the defendant and interested party of the service of claim form constituted good service and an application for an extension of time to serve the claim form.
Mrs Justice O’Farrell ruled, “…there was no valid service of the claim form on the defendant within the prescribed time limit” and that this failure was “serious and significant” as the claimant did not adhere to CPR 54.7.
Therefore, service of the unsealed claim form on 27 April 2021 did not constitute a step in the proceedings and the court did not have the discretion to rectify this procedural irregularity under CPR 3.10. Furthermore, it was held that the claimant did not establish a valid reason for the court to exercise its power under CPR 6.15, as serving sealed copies of the claim form to the incorrect email addresses did not constitute valid service either.
The ruling of this case highlights the strict judicial approach to the rules governing service of the claim form. Thus, although it has become more common to accept service of a claim form via email rather than in person, it is crucial for the document to be sent to the correct email address, or the service will be deemed invalid.
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What is the time limit for serving a claim form?
Under CPR 7.5, a claim form must be served before midnight on the calendar day four months after the date of issue of the claim form.
Why is limitation in litigation important?
Limitation is not something that should be ignored. Where a party has a strong case, but the limitation period has expired, the claim will be likely to fail. Even in unusual circumstances, where a party is prevented from issuing its claim in time for reasons beyond its control, the court has no discretion to extend the limitation period in this type of claim. It is, therefore, crucial that limitation issues are considered at the outset of any potential claims.
The implications of leaving service of a claim form until the last minute
This judgment serves as a stark reminder, to both litigants in person and solicitors alike, that strict adherence to the CPR is vital and the consequences of failing to do so can be fatal to any litigation, which is why you should instruct specialist litigation solicitors. There are strong grounds for a professional negligence case which would enable the claimant to seek damages from them.
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LIMITATION ACT 1980 – WARNING
The Limitation Act 1980 sets out strict statutory deadlines within which you must bring litigation claims. Your legal rights will become irreversibly time-barred if you fail to take legal action (or defend a claim on time). Therefore, you should seek specific legal advice about your legal dispute at the very first opportunity so that you understand the time you have left. Failure to take advice or delay in taking action can be fatal to your prospects of success.