In Shah v London Borough of Barnet  EWHC 2631 (QB) Master Stevens refused the defendant’s application for permission to resile from a pre-action admission.
“On the particular facts of this case, I believe it would reflect poorly on the justice system to allow the defendant another last “bite at the cherry” in respect of liability arguments when so many experienced claims handlers have reviewed the matter already, and over a considerable period of time. An important component of the overriding objective is compliance with rules and practice directions and therefore with protocols. The purpose of the pre-action protocols is to narrow issues and resolve disputes, or parts of them, wherever possible without having to engage expensive court resource. If issues are to be re-opened at a later stage there need to be very good reasons as the overriding objective makes clear. There are likely to always be some cases where there is a reappraisal of liability risk assessments and it is appropriate, for a combination of reasons, to allow an admission to be resiled from, but this should not be commonplace.”
The claimant had been injured when he fell over an uneven pavement, the defendant was the relevant highway authority. The defendant initially denied liability but later wrote stating that “liability will no longer be in issue”.
THE DEFENDANT’S APPLICATION
The defendant made an application to resile from the admission just under 12 months after it had made the admission).
THE MASTER’S DECISION
The judgment contains a detailed review of the Practice Direction and relevant authorities.
At the outset counsel for the defendants submitted that the strongest grounds they were relying upon within the Practice Direction were sub-paragraphs a, b, f and g, although submissions covered other factors too, whilst counsel for the claimant was contending for a, b, c, e and g in the claimant’s favour. In any event I turn now to consider each factor.
a) the grounds upon which the applicant seeks to withdraw the admission including whether or not new evidence has come to light which was not available at the time the admission was made;
The defendant structured their submissions around three topics which they said had changed over time and subsequent to the admission. Two topics can be examined together, namely knowledge of the defects and direction of travel and I will deal with those first.
(i) Information that was said to be “new” about the pre-existing defects
The statement made in support of the application by an Associate, Ms Wallis, of Weightmans solicitors described information that was available at the time the admission was made and what was known subsequently.
Ms Wallis noted that defect reports had not been located to confirm the position of two defects on the street where the claimant’s accident had occurred “and any relevance or otherwise to the location of the claimant’s fall “. She explained that after she had been instructed on 6th December 2020 she asked the defendant to search again for documents to see whether any more could be found that would demonstrate the system of repair and maintenance in the locality. She said the defendant then tried some different searches in their systems. This led to the highways team finding the defect reports that the pre-accident, March 2018 inspection, had referred to. Those reports confirmed that the defects found did not relate to the area on the street where the accident was said to have occurred.
Ms Wallis then asked the defendant to widen their search further to encompass complaints and works undertaken in the area and none were found that related to the accident location. At some unspecified time the defendant also then located a works order referring to the subsequent resurfacing scheme at the place of the accident and those documents confirmed the resurfacing was unrelated to the index accident.
At paragraph 18 of her witness statement she said the defendant therefore now has new information by way of the defect reports which were not available when the admission was made. She stated “this evidence confirms that the area was not in a dangerous state at the time of the pre-accident inspection in March 2018 and there is therefore an argument that it was not dangerous at the time the claimant fell in August 2018 giving rise to a potential defence under section 58 of the Highways Act 1980”.
Counsel also asked me to reflect on the contemporaneous file note recording the basis for the admission, such note being dated 19th February 2020, as she said it very clearly showed the reasons why the admission was made and why it was now being resiled from. The relevant extracts for my determination were, “Wrong defect inspected and this was pointed out by the claimant but no further action taken or a second ARD inspection was requested at the time …the defect location is now replaced with tarmac and claimant unable to send anymore images …Highways unable to trace any work orders for the defect …the defect (wrong defect) inspected by Highways officer is 22mm but no WO raised (which may still be considered as dangerous )and the defect in question is on the other side of the same paving stone- see images received from claimant marking the defect location and direction of travel. The paving stone is shown lifted up due to tree roots. It was agreed that we will have to concede liability as no action taken when claimant reported that wrong defect was inspected. Highways unable to provide any WO details and the defect that was measured was close to intervention level, the pavement has since been tarmac over replacing the paving stones.”
(ii) Information that was said to be “new” about the direction of travel
Ms Wallis also pointed to what she described as new information about the direction of travel of the claimant supplied by the claimant on 5th and 8th January 2020. She said this was the first indication to the defendant that they had not measured the correct side of the slab, said to be the tripping hazard, and that as that measurement had underpinned part of the liability decision making that was also material new evidence to support submissions under paragraph (a) of the Practice Direction.
She referred to a “policy” of the defendant, that if they were unsure about the point of trip, an inspector would measure the highest raised area. There was no evidence put forward by the inspector that this was indeed what had happened but Ms Wallis made some suppositions from the photographs produced by the inspector.
I am aware that the claimant’s original letter of complaint had specified that at the time of the accident he was walking back from Tescos to his home. It is therefore unclear to me how his direction of travel could be said to be in doubt, and a witness statement from the claimant’s solicitor, Mr Mc Neil, makes the point at paragraph 44 (a) (i) “the direction of travel , on a site inspection, would have been obvious-in order to reach the Claimant’s home, the location of the accident had to be passed. This is not possible if he had been travelling in the opposite direction, as the house would come first”. This point was not directly contradicted by the defendant in their submissions.
My determination of points (i) and (ii) above
It was put to me that the admission largely related to a lack of information and what were perceived to be unattractive features, namely measuring the wrong side of the paving stone and the resurfacing rather than an assessment of the legal issue under sections 41 and 58 of the Highways Act 1980.
It was accepted that the evidence is not “new” in that it could have been discoverable when the admission was made but that the solicitor’s input had resulted in a careful reappraisal. It was submitted this brings my decision within the ambit of previous authorities where admissions have been resiled from with permission of the court. Reference was made to the fact that material documents were genuinely not available at the time of the liability decision and that was important for the balancing exercise that I have to undertake. It was said that there are now reasonable prospects of success for the defendant to make out a section 58 defence, although that falls to be considered separately below under factor (g) of the Practice Direction.
At this point I remind myself of the case authorities referred to me, notably Woodland and Moore and that information which is not “new” but which has not been properly appraised previously can be considered favourably to enable an admission to be withdrawn under 14 PD 7.2 (a). I am not persuaded that the reasoning on the facts of those cases assists the defendant in this case. In both the reported cases the re-appraisals revealed that the admissions which had been given would not have finally resolved all liability issues in any event. In Woodland the emerging evidence about the identity of the defendants and liability arguments against each would, it seems, not have been resolved purely on the basis of an admission by one party. There was reference to the future potential for satellite litigation.
Similarly, in Moore the judgment makes clear that the admission was not comprehensive; the court would have still needed to resolve the true position on medical causation before a liability finding could be recorded from which damages would have flowed.
In Cavell (which was only relied upon by the claimant) there was a reappraisal of the existing evidence but the Judge considered the integrity of the defendant’s fresh review of their highway inspection system and the so-called innocuousness of the defect were undermined because the admission was only made after a period of mature reflection by highly competent professional advisers . He considered there had been a reasonable appraisal at the time of making the admission and after a lengthy investigation, such that the admission should not be withdrawn.
There are significant similarities between Cavell and the facts of this case. To re-cap on what is said to be “new” evidence before me , there is first the discovery of 2 pre-accident defects reports showing that they were not at precisely the spot where the claimant fell. The defendant’s advisers had never asserted they believed these were at the same location -it was an unknown when they made their decision.
Secondly there is the “discovery” of an absence of other complaints of defects in the vicinity which is said to indicate that there is good evidence a court could be persuaded at trial the highway was not dangerous at the time of the accident. If there had been other evidence before me that the defendant’s record-keeping was well-maintained and comprehensive this might have carried more weight. It was fairly put by the claimant that even their own accident did not appear on any disclosed records nor did that of an accident involving the claimant’s neighbour which had been reported.
Thirdly, the discovery of works orders for the resurfacing of the accident location after the claimant’s fall, which showed the works were not in response to the fall, is pretty weak as an argument for displacing the admission. Whilst Mr Pedro’s witness statement for the defendant indicated he “had been led to believe that a reactive repair was carried out” he went on to explain how the repair works would in fact have been commissioned. He said an annual footways survey would identify “footways which are most in need of improvement e.g. worn -out condition etc this does not mean that the footways necessarily have intervention level defects”. There are several problems with this evidence ; it suggests generally that the pavement was sufficiently unsatisfactory for a public body to schedule works to improve it. Indeed there is evidence about a general state of disrepair, with cracked and uneven paving due to tree roots. Whilst section 41 of the Highways Act requires attention to be focussed on specific defects not a “general state” the point remains that the section of the footway where the claimant fell was included within the scope of those public works where no doubt a prudent eye must be maintained on controlling expense. Also the highways inspection report from the 7th of January 2019 puts the cause of the raised paving where the fall occurred as tree roots pushing up which on any logical analysis would have occurred over a period of time, such that it could not be said with any authority the issue might not have been visible on the earlier inspection if it had been competently performed. And finally, the height of the actual trip as measured by the defendant was said to be “close to intervention levels” and they had also concluded it ” may still be considered as dangerous” despite the height being 22 millimetres “. To my mind that rather undermines some of the reasoning put forward by them in their letter to the claimant on 27th February 2019 when denying the claim on the basis that the size of the maximum defect was well below the tolerances considered by the courts as hazardous. The arguments do not stop there- the claimant has objected to the positioning of the measuring tool used by the highways inspector in any event and contended in its Reply that the trip was likely to have been at least 25mm in height or was of such height as to be reasonably conspicuous to a reasonably competent highway inspection and of such height as to constitute a danger to pedestrians.
The other piece of allegedly “new evidence relied upon by the defendant , namely the change in direction of travel of the claimant is hopeless in my view as an argument to justify resiling. The claimant had been at pains to assist with identification of the precise cause and location of his fall from his earliest communication with the defendant. In his initial letter of complaint he had described his route coming home from shopping at Tesco’s. I have already referred to the claimant’s solicitor’s statement where it was said the route “would have been obvious” and the fact that this was not contradicted in later submissions by the defendant.
(iii) Information that was said to be “new” about value
The other type of new evidence which the defendant sought to rely upon was an increase in the quantum of the claim. Ms. Wallis in her witness statement at paragraph 25 identified that it was initially thought by the defendant that the value might be in the region of £30,000 to £40,000, and I quote “so it was accepted as a case to settle “. Subsequently she noted when the claim went to Gallagher Bassett insurers for review it was seen as “likely to exceed £50,000″. It is asserted there was no indication of a large special damages claim. Mr Pedro Shaw also referred at paragraph 10 of his statement” to a reasonable commercial approach to avoid the costs of third party legal representation and or litigation ” as one of the factors in making the admission.
Counsel for the defendant was at pains to point out that there was no suggestion the claimant had misled the defendant with regard to value but said the defendant genuinely had believed that it was a much lower value claim. They pointed to the initial letter of complaint 12 weeks’ post-accident and its description of the injuries reported as well as their request for medical reports several times to help them assist with valuation of the claim and the fact that the medical records were not provided until after both admissions had been made. They contended that the first really clear confirmation of value was at the point of service of proceedings . They relied on the authority in Wood to say that as the value of the claim had increased significantly they should be permitted to withdraw their admission.
The claimant’s submissions were forcefully made when describing the defendant’s lack of awareness of the true value of the claim “as barely credible “. At no point did the claimant contend he had no special damages claim. Prior to the interim payment being received the defendant was provided with 658 pages of medical records and a clear rebuttal this case was not suitable for the MoJ portal i.e.as one valued at less than £25,000.
I have struggled with all the defendant’s submissions on value . I have read the claimant’s letter of complaint and to my mind it should have been obvious to anyone responsible for claims valuation, that the claim had significant value; indeed the opening lines of the letter, which were not recited in any of the defendant’s evidence in support of their application stated ” I am writing to make a formal complaint against the council in relation to life changing injuries I sustained tripping on the pavement of The Grove” ( emphasis added). The letter continues, explaining the need for surgery which might involve a shoulder replacement together with the existence of nerve damage, a note that he was almost five hours in the operating theatre, has loss of the functional use of his right and dominant arm together with a loss of sensation in his right hand. Finally the letter records that he will not be able to go back to normal activities of daily living and that he required assistance from his wife with all activities ( again emphasis added) . I agree from reading the records that the claimant at no time indicated his claim was limited to general damages and I consider it an unusual assumption that that was likely to be the case in any event given the description of those injuries . Moreover the level of quantum does not affect the question of who is liable.
The case law referred to me in Wood v Days Healthcare is plainly distinguishable where even the claimant’s solicitors acknowledged there had been a change in character and amount in the value of the claimant’s case. Greater assistance is to be found in the RAC v Wright case relied on by the claimant where the defendant erroneously assumed the claim was of low value when it was not and permission was not granted to resile .Similar to this case, the claimant’s solicitors had done nothing to imply the claim was of modest value.
b) the conduct of the parties, including any conduct which led the party making the admission to do so;
The defendant made no allegations about the claimant’s conduct.
The defendant said the inefficient interrogation of the defendant’s highway system had been explained in the evidence of Pedro Shaw, employed by the defendant as an Insurance Claims Manager. At paragraph 8 of his statement he had spoken of the difficulties of his team in locating highways documents in the past and that from late 2017 through to early March 2018, the highways team was becoming used to different ways of titling and saving their documents. He said whilst the insurance section could undertake searches, they would often ask highways to produce them as they had a better knowledge of where specific documents might be located.
It was submitted by counsel for the defendant that the failures to locate material information pre-admission was not an error or fault, but rather a symptom of a changing system and the file moving from in house file handler ultimately to solicitors, where experience is brought to bear.
Whilst this may have provided me with an explanation of what had happened, none of it enlightened me as to why the highways department was not asked in this instance to help with the searches sooner and before the admission or before solicitors were instructed. The defendant had an in-house insurance claims team well used to dealing with claims that required highways searches to be performed.
It was also submitted that the defendant only had limited information about valuation so genuinely believed the claim was of lesser value. I was therefore asked not to make an adverse conduct finding on this point. I find this argument difficult to follow as valuation goes to issues of quantum not liability.
The claimant, in contrast, described the conduct of the defendant as unsatisfactory in a number of respects. They cited delays in providing a response under the protocol, including the absence of evidence in support of a denial for five months, and even then supplying incomplete documentation. Additionally they complained about the defendant not providing documentation in support of the defence until the accident area had been resurfaced. This latter conduct deprived the claimant of the opportunity to properly challenge the evidence relied upon and encouraged him to proceed with quantum only investigations.
The claimant also took exception to the defendant conducting a site inspection without the claimant despite his offer to attend which would have avoided any subsequent difficulty on the precise accident location and hazard complained of. They also referred to delay both in terms of the withdrawal application being made a year after the admission, and in the defendant’s solicitors giving any indication they were considering resiling following a review of all the paperwork, which they characterised as “misleading”.
The claimant said none of the matters recited stand to the credit of the defendant and pointed to the seniority of the claims handling team which they said was significant given their lack of proficiency and candour. Without making a finding of lack of candour I nonetheless agree with the claimant that the defendant’s conduct overall militates against granting permission to withdraw the admission. I do not accept the submission that the defendant’s manner of investigation is simply a “red herring”.
(c) the prejudice that may be caused to any person if the admission is withdrawn;
The defendant acknowledges that, should the application to resile succeed, the claimant will lose the benefit of that admission.. They point to the fact that the claimant had the benefit of that admission for just under 12 months. They also say he had an opportunity from the accident date until February 2020 to investigate his claim and collate any evidence that he wished with regard to the accident circumstances.
Shortly before the hearing the defendant also said they would ensure there is no prejudice regarding the interim payment because:
a) If the claimant ultimately succeeds at trial it will be treated as an interim payment towards any damages that are ultimately awarded.
b) If the defendant succeeds at trial, they are agreeable to providing an undertaking not to seek repayment of that interim payment
Finally the defendant submitted there is no hard and/or irreparable prejudice caused but really what the claimant has lost if the defence is made out is “the loss of a windfall”.
The claimant however contended that but they would suffer real and substantial prejudice if the admission was withdrawn. They characterised this in terms of having to re-investigate liability in circumstances where the real evidence of the defect has been destroyed by the defendant. The defendant itself had acknowledged the prejudice caused by that destruction in its February 2020 review “we will have to concede liability as no action taken when claimant when reported that wrong defect was inspected…the pavement has since been tarmac over replacing the paving stones.”
The claimant also said they would have to rely on eye witness accounts from residents as to the existence and extent of the defect which went undetected by the defendant . They said they would suffer real forensic prejudice as evidence had been destroyed ( which they could otherwise have measured and photographed more fully) and they have yet to obtain witness statements with all the potential for evidenced to have degraded over time. They pointed to the fact that recollections would be needed for trial about an area which is now substantially different, and has been for some time. They also said they would have carried out their own independent inspection of the accident site before it was resurfaced, and performed their own measurements of the height of the defect, if they had known liability was being disputed or the defect was going to be covered over. Overall the claimant maintained that whilst they still have a reasonable prospect of success, the defendant’s conduct has made their position more difficult . They have also incurred significant costs in investigating quantum which I recognise but a suitable costs order could address that particular issue.
The claimant’s solicitor, Mr McNeil, spoke of the significant distress caused to the claimant by the defendant’s about turn on liability some 2.7 years down the line when he had been expecting to resolve the quantum issues shortly, the quantum evidence being in the final stages of completion .
I accept the defendant’s assertion that the fact of the claimant losing the benefit of the admission is sadly true of any application to resile and is not enough to base my decision upon. I however agree with the claimant’s submissions that the characterisation of the admission as a “windfall” Is offensive. I do not find it helpful to consider that the claimant could have obtained better liability evidence whilst awaiting a decision from the defendant on liability. The whole thrust of modern litigation is to work proportionately and co-operatively to try to resolve disputes, not to try and double-up on evidence gathering where that can be avoided. The claimant was in regular communication with the defendant trying to tease out their response and evidence, asking for missing documents and make themselves generally available to assist in narrowing and resolving issues; much many of those interactions were not recorded in the defendant’s chronology for this application but were contained within the material put forward by the claimant. I also accept that the value of the evidence which can now be obtained is reasonably likely to be diminished by the passage of time, and the destruction of the physical location where the accident occurred through re-surfacing.
Whilst the defendant has helpfully agreed to negate any prejudice regarding the interim payment, and the costs of gathering quantum evidence can be addressed by the court in other ways, overall I accept that there will be some prejudice to the claimant if the admission is withdrawn. This could have been avoided but for inefficiencies in the operation of the experienced claims handling team of the defendant .
(d) the prejudice that may be caused to any person if the application is refused;
The defendant submits if the application is refused their prejudice will be the loss of a bona fides defence. Ms Wallis of Weightmans solicitors stated at paragraph 20 of her witness statement that the receipt of the defects reports means the defendant now has a “possible section 58 defence and a section 41 argument on whether the defect was at a dangerous level when he fell “.
Counsel for the defence submitted that with the combination of this evidence and that of no previous complaints and/or reported accidents, there is good evidence that the defendant did not know and could not reasonably have known, of the existence of the defect so as to have it repaired prior to the claimant’s accident. This would be a section 58 defence.
She continued that in addition the claimant still has to prove the accident circumstances and establish that the defect was dangerous as at the time of his accident. For the reasons set out in the Defence, she said this is not straightforward for the claimant.
If the application to resile is not permitted, the defendant will have to meet a potential liability of over £200,000 or at least £160k more than anticipated and they are publicly funded .
The claimant submitted that the defendant does not have a definitive defence and bearing in mind that the defendant had originally denied liability before admitting it, there is no prejudice to the defendant in requiring them to maintain their considered position .
I cannot find that there is absolutely no prejudice to the defendant if the admission is maintained but it is just one of the factors I have to consider . Whilst I have accepted the fact that there is a prejudice/ downside for any claimant in losing the benefit of an admission if it is permitted to be withdrawn, the converse is true for any defendant who seeks permission to withdraw which is refused. Therefore something more material is required for it to be reflected in my overall decision. I do not consider the additional compensation for which they may be liable beyond their original risk assessments should weigh materially in my overall determination given the experience of those who were assessing the claim and the information they had to hand. Equally, I do not consider the fact the defendant is a publicly funded body is relevant as they had resourced a sizeable claims handling team and I note they have insurers, albeit I do not have any specific detail on that beyond the identity of their claims assessors. Much of the prejudice alleged is dependent on my view of the prospects of success and how they may be impeded. The relative prejudice to the parties in this regard is finely balanced.
e) the stage in the proceedings at which the application to withdraw is made, in particular in relation to the date or period fixed for trial:
The defendant submits the application was made as early in the proceedings as possible. It was identified in the Defence and an application followed swiftly thereafter. The application was heard well in advance of the CCMC where the claim could properly be case managed and cost budgeted for the remainder of the case.
The claimant submits whilst the application was made early on in proceedings it is still late coming a year after the admission was made . They take account of one of the reported cases referred to above, ( The Royal Automobile Club v Wright  EWHC 913 (QB) ) where the period of time pre-proceedings was also considered and rely on the fact that no notice was given to the claimant promptly, that the application was being considered by solicitors.
Overall I do not believe this factor weighs heavily in the balancing exercise that I need to conduct as the wording of the Practice Direction draws particular attention to the time fixed for trial . There is no prospect of a trial date being imperilled. Whilst I have heard what the claimant has to say about the quantum only aspects having a relatively short shelf life to resolution, experience tells me that whilst theoretically that may be the case, matters may nonetheless become protracted when both parties produce evidence on quantum.
(g) the prospects of success (if the admission is withdrawn) of the claim or part of the claim in relation to which the admission was made:
The defendant points to clear issues of fact to be determined with regard to the circumstances of the accident and, in particular, the precise location/precise defect that is said to have caused his accident. They recited the principles in the case of Mills v Barnsley  PIQR 291 and James v Preseli District Council  PIQR 11. The principles are now trite, but the cases set out what would have to be proven by the claimant and defendant at trial should permission to withdraw be granted and primary liability be in dispute.
a) The claimant will have to prove the happening of the accident and its circumstances;
b) The claimant will have to prove that the particular defect which caused his accident was (as at the time of his accident) a real source of danger to ordinary users of the highway and that such a danger arose from a failure to maintain the highway (s.41 of the Highways Act 1980);
c) If the claimant proves these matters, the defendant must prove that it has taken such care as was reasonable in the circumstances to secure the part of the highway to which the action relates (Special Defence contained in section 58 of the Highways Act 1980)
The defendant asserted it now has documentation which supports a section 58 Defence and that their prospects of success “must be regarded as reasonable”.
The claimant maintains that whilst they will have to rely on eyewitness evidence in relation to the nature and extent of the undetected defect , and that the potency of that evidence will have been degraded absent their ability to investigate the defect, nonetheless they still have sufficient prospects of success and the proposed defence is not of such strength that the admission inevitably must be permitted to be withdrawn.
I was not drawn to any material suggesting a significant contest on point ( a) above, just the general position that the defendant would like to cross-examine the claimant on the precise circumstances of the accident.
The submissions for the claimant concerning point (b) drew me back to the material attendance note of the defendant dated 19th February 2020, as described above, which clearly accepts there was a defect, albeit not measured on the side of the raised paving stone which the claimant alleges he tripped on. That defect according to the defendant’s written notes might still be considered as “dangerous”. Neither party it seems has a measurement for the other side of the slab but both seem to accept it was raised.
Given the exposed inadequacy of recordkeeping in the defendant’s highways department, and lack of contemporaneous recording of all defects, the improved prospects of mounting a successful defence are, to my mind, still highly questionable regarding proof of a competent system of inspection such that it could be fairly said the defendant had taken such care as was reasonable ( point ( c ) above refers).
I am mindful from the case authorities that it is not for me to conduct a mini trial on the prospects of success. And the test is not whether or not either party’s case is bound to succeed. I note that during the course of submissions the defendant’s own assessment of their prospects has changed from “possible” to “reasonable” but it matters not as I cannot say that the position is so hopeless for either party that this factor weighs heavily in my balancing exercise.
(h) the interests of the administration of justice.
The defendant accepts there is no doubt that the making of admissions is important in the structure of civil litigation. However, they say it is important in the interests of the administration of justice that where the defendant has a defence (and where the value of the claim is so much higher than the defendant genuinely and reasonably anticipated) that it is able to advance its defence.
The claimant refers to the fact that CPR Part 14.1A was changed to give force to pre-issue admissions in personal injury cases and confidence to claimants to be able to rely upon them. They say it was clear that this was a multi-track case from the outset and the defendant utilised three case handlers to investigate liability and review the file before making an admission. They say if parties were able to withdraw admissions easily post-issue clients would not be able to trust them and unnecessary liability costs and delays would be incurred in every case, just in case a defendant or its insured changed their mind at a later stage .
The point is further developed to say that it would bring the justice system into disrepute to allow defendants to withdraw admissions of liability after a long delay and when quantum investigations are almost complete. They rely on the judgment in the case of The Royal Automobile Club v Wright  EWHC 913 (QB) where it was held:- “If clear and unequivocal admissions which have led to a substantial investigation of quantum and to interim payments being made apparently without question can be withdrawn many months later, there will be real damage to the administration justice. It undermines the basis on which the parties to this type of litigation conduct themselves.”
I did not find the defendant’s submissions on this point persuasive . There will always be situations where the overall interests of the administration of justice weigh heavily in the determination of allowing a defence to proceed. This is not one of those cases for the reasons articulated by the claimant . Once again in arguing the point the defendant has alluded to the change in value of the claim as being a significant reason but I have already held against them on that point in this case.
All the circumstances of the case and the overriding objective
And now I must consider all the circumstances of the case and the overriding objective to deal with cases justly and at proportionate cost. Costs will inevitably increase if the admission is withdrawn and the claimant is put to further proof on liability.
In terms of overall justice I note that a significant part of the new information which the defendant now seeks to rely upon had been requested by the claimant, pre-admission, in an email of 8th of January 2020 concerning the two earlier defects identified on the 5th of March 2018 inspection. The defendant still failed to conduct a search in such a way as to locate the documents which were subsequently made available after the admission when seeking to resile. I find this remarkable given that the “new” system of ordering highways documents, cited by the defendants as an explanation, had been introduced in late 2017 so over two years before the admission. The investigation of accidents on the highway is not so complex or unusual, or one that the defendant did not have an experienced team available to consult, such that when considering the overriding objective, I am influenced to count any of those factors in their favour when considering their application to resile.
It is also hard to imagine what else the claimant could have offered to do to assist with a decision as to what happened on the highway when he fell. The fact that he was largely ignored cannot stand to the defendant’s credit. Now that the accident scene has been covered over by the defendant with tarmac, before full measurements or photographic evidence were taken by either party, both parties are compromised in their evidence so a trial judge would face a more difficult and time-consuming job in reaching a conclusion which cannot be a good use of court’s resource.
On the particular facts of this case, I believe it would reflect poorly on the justice system to allow the defendant another last “bite at the cherry” in respect of liability arguments when so many experienced claims handlers have reviewed the matter already, and over a considerable period of time. An important component of the overriding objective is compliance with rules and practice directions and therefore with protocols. The purpose of the pre-action protocols is to narrow issues and resolve disputes, or parts of them, wherever possible without having to engage expensive court resource. If issues are to be re-opened at a later stage there need to be very good reasons as the overriding objective makes clear. There are likely to always be some cases where there is a reappraisal of liability risk assessments and it is appropriate, for a combination of reasons, to allow an admission to be resiled from, but this should not be commonplace.
For all the reasons above my determination is that the defendant should not be granted permission to resile from their admission. Judgement is to be entered for the claimant.