Sunday, 14 June 2015

Canal and River Trust's Double Edged Legal Sword

It is well known that going to Court can be a double edged sword. And it seems CRT is going to be put to the knife yet again?

We have recently seen an FoI request revealing how much CRT spent in three other prominent court cases. CRT subsequently say they are unable to provide their internal costs (staff time), so the figures are incomplete, but the cases concerned have on the partial figures cost in excess of £150 000. One case was successful from CRT's point of view (Mayers), but the other two (Wingfield and Dunkley) were settled without full trial.

Now two other boaters have made High Court applications about CRT's conduct. (Outlines of Leigh Ravenscroft's and Matthew Jones' claims can be viewed via these respective links.)

As ever some of the forum trolls have been having a go at the boaters concerned, about the money they are costing CRT, conveniently forgetting that these latest two actions are in response to CRT having previously initiated actions against the boaters. It should also be noted that the respective Courts due to hear both cases had to be satisfied there is some basic merit in the claims before these actions could go ahead.

As many have been asking over the last few weeks, are the levels of legal expenditure being incurred by CRT appropriate?

Now of course the three cases the FOI referred to, were contested cases so inevitably took more time and effort than many of the more typical cases reported on the CRT web site, which in the majority appear to have been uncontested. A quick review of the Court Orders there shows that the Courts concerned have typically been awarding costs against the boater of around £1000. Based on my past experience putting housing possession cases through the County Courts, I would expect BW/CRT's actual costs in these cases to be something on the order £2-4000 per case.

There is no doubt that especially around the subject of Continuous Cruising and the issue of distance moved  CRT are seeking precedent cases. Many of course question whether this is a worthwhile aim to pursue.

Especially with Boaters increasingly organised and prepared to push back, this may be a double edged sword: The concern is that CRT are causing more problems for themselves than they are solving, when they rely on untested legal interpretation or just plain get the 'facts' wrong. The fact that they backed down, not even it seems wanting to have the Courts hear the arguments in the cases of Dunkley and Wingfield, rather suggests these two cases at least were pretty flimsy in the first place. Was it cock-up or conspiracy that caused matters to proceed so far?

A lack of good judgement in taking those two cases to Court, (whether by cock up or conspiracy, or both) is most evident in the Dunkley case, on which we now know CRT spent over £15 000 before backing down. Since I last wrote about that we also have more information: Faced with a summary defence, subsequently filled out in detail, it became clear that whoever had authorised the case had got their facts badly wrong and that what they had told the Court would have had a coach and horses driven through it if it went to full trial.

Of course the conspiracy theory is the fact of CRT attempting to have a Part 8 Court procedure applied, effectively trying to get the Court to make the order on the nod. All this clearly back-fired and adds reputational damage to the financial costs.

Of course the other famous (or should we say infamous) case is Nigel Moore, where BW/CRT spent £1/4M on what had all the hallmarks of a personal grudge. (In the Moore case CRT were also ordered to pay a substantial proportion of Nigel's cost and I am yet to hear what the net figure is for that.)

There are undoubtedly cases where taking legal action against a boater is necessary, cases involving abandoned craft and/or cases where licences had not been paid for and over which CRT has to take action. But the frequency with which the merits of individual cases is at best dubious, if not as in some of the examples above, fatally flawed, seems too common.

One wonders what thought processes are adopted and who in CRT has the final say to push cases to Court? The cost of these self inflicted wounds is increasingly significant.

A related example from many years ago:

There was a case in Oxford over a decade ago where BW seized the boat of a vulnerable man. Even his supporters admitted that the boat was in a terrible state, had no safety certificate or insurance and needed dealing with one way or another.

The response of the community was however a little more constructive than that of BW: they held a whip round to buy him a new boat, Licence, insurance and safety certificate, and reinstated him on his mooring a few days after BW took the old boat away.

Matters should have ended there but BW quickly revealed that their action was personal, by starting a new action to evict him from his mooring despite the substantive problem having been dealt with. The County Court would have none of it, pointing out that while BW had been entitled to seize the original boat, they had failed to terminate the boater's mooring agreement; now that he had a better and fitter boat to live in, now he was getting support, the Court could see no good reason why he should not keep his mooring.

The fact is that over the years BW and now CRT have built a reputation for being vindictive petty and simply unfair over the issues for which they will take some people to Court. One consequence is that many boaters are much more likely to push back and view any Court action as suspect. CRT needs to get its house in order on this front, not least because this is costing them huge amounts in legal and reputational costs, at least some of which it seems to me is avoidable.

While they are perceived as being partial and inflexible in their judgements they will continue to face huge legal costs.

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