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07 July 2015
In Smailes v McNally(1) the High Court considered whether the claimant had complied with its disclosure obligations under the Civil Procedure Rules, reinforced by an 'unless' order, and in particular the requirement to make a reasonable search in circumstances where this process had been conducted through scanning documents into an online database. This case provides a warning of the potential pitfalls associated with electronic disclosure processes, as well as the importance of an express agreement between the parties as to the applicability of Practice Direction 31B (which relates to the disclosure of electronic documents) where such a process is to be used.
Proceedings were commenced in May 2011 by liquidators, which claimed approximately £50 million from the former director and company secretary of two companies as a result of the failure by the companies to meet their tax obligations.
In June 2013, following multiple extensions of the deadline for disclosure, a judge directed that the claim be struck out unless the liquidators, within a final deadline, conducted a search for relevant documents and provided a list of documents in compliance with the requirements set out in the Civil Procedure Rules.
The disclosure exercise was completed and a disclosure list was served on the defendants' solicitors in purported compliance with the court's order. The defendants contended that the disclosure list provided by the liquidators failed to comply with Civil Procedure Rule 31 and the order on the basis that:
The defendants applied for judgment on the grounds that the liquidators had failed to comply with the order. The liquidators resisted this and issued a cross-application for relief from sanctions.
A judge heard the applications in September 2013. He concluded that the liquidators had sufficiently complied with the order and dismissed the defendants' application, finding no need to hear the liquidators' relief from sanctions application. The defendants appealed to the Court of Appeal on three main grounds:
The defendants also applied to the Court of Appeal to raise evidence in relation to another failure by the liquidators to carry out a reasonable search and comply with the order. The search process that had been adopted was to scan hard-copy documents into a system and convert them into searchable documents. A keyword search of these was then conducted and the responsive documents were reviewed to determine which were disclosable. The conversion was done using optical character recognition (OCR) to image hard-copy documents and convert them into word-searchable documents. It became apparent, after the initial hearing, that problems associated with this imaging process had meant that a potentially large number of disclosable documents had been missed by the searches. In these circumstances, the defendants contended that the liquidators could not have been said to have made a reasonable search.
On the first ground of the appeal, the Court of Appeal considered whether a reasonable search had been carried out, in particular in light of the omission from the disclosure list of documents known to be in the parties' control. The liquidators' solicitor had known of the importance of these documents, but had failed to check that they had been uploaded to the electronic dataset. In these circumstances, no search – let alone a reasonable search – had been made for these critical documents. The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal on the first ground and struck out the liquidators' claim on the basis of their non-compliance with the unless order. Consequently, the Court of Appeal did not consider the other grounds of appeal.
Following the decision of the Court of Appeal, the liquidators renewed their application to the High Court for relief from sanctions for non-compliance with the unless order.
The first question to be decided by the court was whether the application for relief should be confined to the ground on which the Court of Appeal had concluded that the liquidators had been in breach of the order, or whether the court could consider all of the original grounds of alleged default, plus the OCR issue (which had not been raised at the first hearing). The court found that once a first-instance judgment has been set aside for any reason, it becomes void ab initio (ie, from the beginning); therefore, the court could consider all of the grounds on which the defendants contended that the order had been breached.
The court therefore considered each individual alleged breach of the order against the criteria for relief from sanctions set out in Civil Procedure Rule 3.9, clarified by the Court of Appeal in Denton v TH White Limited.(2) The liquidators contended that the application should succeed at each of the three stages set out in Denton, while the defendants contended that:
The court first considered the failure to disclose relevant documents that had led the Court of Appeal to find that the liquidators had not carried out a reasonable search. The court concluded that the omission of these documents from the disclosure list was a serious breach, but that it was not in itself significant. This was because:
The court concluded that had this been the only breach, it would have granted relief from sanctions.
The defendants' further complaint was that the disclosure list had failed to meet the requirements of Civil Procedure Rule 31.10 by failing sufficiently to describe the documents contained within it. They contended that this breach was significant, as the list served was "so vague as to be of no practical utility". The liquidators argued that they were entitled to rely on Practice Direction 31B because the exercise being undertaken was e-disclosure as a result of both the methodology employed and the tacit agreement of the respondents' solicitors, or was so close to such an exercise that it should be considered in analogy with Practice Direction 31B. They suggested this as Practice Direction 31B expands on the requirements and form of the disclosure list in Civil Procedure Rule 31.10 (3) when it applies. It provides that:
"in order to comply with rule 31.10(3) it will normally be necessary to list the documents in date order, to number them consecutively and to give each a concise description (e.g. letter, claimant to defendant). Where there is a large number of documents all falling into a particular category the disclosing party may list those documents as a category rather than individually."
In addition, the liquidators said that in any event, the significance of this breach had been grossly overstated, as access to all documents could be obtained by the defendants at the click of a button.
The judge at the earlier hearing had initially rejected the submission that Practice Direction 31B applied to these documents on the basis that what was being undertaken was an analysis of hard-copy documents – albeit by electronic means – rather than electronic documents. However, he had found that the position was altered by the defendants' solicitors' agreement with the methodology used. The court in this hearing found that Practice Direction 31B did not apply and disagreed with the earlier finding that the defendants' solicitors' agreement with the methodology had changed this. It held that all that had been agreed was the applied methodology, not the application of Practice Direction 31B. Consequently, the liquidators had committed a serious and significant breach of the terms of the order in failing to provide a list that met the requirements imposed by Practice Direction 31A. However, the fact that inspection was to be carried out by access to an electronic database served to mitigate the seriousness of this breach. This, coupled with the fact that the default could be corrected relatively easily, led the court to conclude that it would have granted relief from sanctions on this breach.
In relation to the OCR issue, the court found that this was "the most serious and significant breach of the Order". Having regard to the problems that had been illustrated with the methodology of the OCR search and the number of potentially relevant documents missed as a result, the court could not conclude that a reasonable search for disclosable documents had been carried out. This failure was both serious and significant. There was no satisfactory explanation as to why this problem had occurred; further, after this problem had been identified, there was no explanation as to why there was no attempt to rectify it. Given this and the series of other failures in the case, the court felt that it would be inappropriate to grant relief from the sanctions imposed by the unless order.
This case is a useful reminder of the potential pitfalls associated with large disclosure exercises. It highlights the fact that Practice Direction 31B applies only to documents of electronic origin, not hard-copy documents scanned in and searched by computer. It may still be open to parties in these circumstances to agree that Practice Direction 31B will apply, but such an agreement should be express, as it is unlikely to be implied by the court. In addition, it illustrates the need to ensure that any methodology employed to filter large volumes of documents scanned to an electronic database will need to work effectively to limit the risk of a party being accused of failing to make a reasonable search for documents.
For further information on this topic please contact Sam Freedman or Geraldine Elliott at RPC by telephone (+44 20 3060 6000) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com). The RPC website can be accessed at www.rpc.co.uk.
(1)  EWHC 1755 (Ch).
(2)  EWCA Civ 906.
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