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Remarkable County Court possession action – 56 possession orders, 9 parties, for the price of one issue fee

Joe Ollech, instructed by Rudi Ramdarshan at Ronald Fletcher Baker LLP, acted for six landlords in a remarkable case that will go unreported as in effect it simply led to a series of forfeiture possession orders.  It deserves, however, to be of great interest to practitioners and large-scale landlords as it is in fact an imaginative triumph of making the CPR work in favour of efficiency and massive time and cost saving.

The background facts were these.  Six claimants (all companies) were part of a group structure.  Each of them owned a number of properties – 56 in all, between them – across 15 different London boroughs.  At all material times they were represented in their property dealings by a single managing agency. The four defendants (three companies, one individual) were also connected, via the individual.  The three companies were his vehicles for renting properties, and his business was sub-letting these properties to local authorities for emergency accommodation.

There were thus 56 separate leases, each with a single landlord and a single tenant, save that with these background features there were substantial commonalities of fact.  It was therefore possible to identify and group various properties – e.g. properties a, b and c were let by C1 to D2, and properties d, e, and f were let by C4 to D1 etc.

Every single defendant fell into arrears on every single property.  Each landlord was entitled to forfeit each lease.  The starting point would ordinarily be that this would give rise to 56 separate possession actions, each in their appropriate county court, and each giving rise to its own possibility of defence and applications for relief etc.  This, whilst strictly speaking correct, would obviously give rise to a large cost burden in court fees alone, plus the added costs of each separate pieces of litigation. An alternative strategy could have been to issue one claim per landlord, with several properties dealt with under one claim, or perhaps to identify properties that were each situated in the area of a given County Court and try to group them together in that fashion.  Ronald Fletcher Baker LLP, advised by Joe Ollech, however, adopted an even bolder strategy.

One single claim form was issued in the Central London County Court, with six claimants and four defendants specified.  That meant one issue fee.   An enormous amount of behind the scenes work by Ronald Fletcher Baker LLP went into preparing a watertight spreadsheet that identified every single property and lease, the parties to each lease, and the arrears outstanding.  The Particulars of Claim then presented all these claims under one rubric, seeking a possession order and money judgment in each.  It was averred that under Rule 7.3 and 19.1 of the CPR this was a legitimate presentation of the multiple claims.  They provide that “A claimant may use a single claim form to start all claims which can be conveniently disposed of in the same proceedings” and “Any number of claimants or defendants may be joined as parties to the claim”. 

On issuing the claim the court was asked to allow substantially more time for the first return hearing, in the hope that the court would be prepared to consider the merits of each claim and make all the appropriate orders.  Likewise, careful and detailed work was done to update the evidence of arrears, and to draft an appropriate single order, under one claim number, that would award possession and money judgment of the multiple parties to each claimant severally.

This innovative approach paid off.  Despite representation on the defendants’ behalves the District Judge accepted the sense and force of the claimants’ position. There being no defence to the underlying claims for possession, the court made multiple orders for possession and money judgment in one claim, and at the first return hearing.  For the price of one issue fee six landlords were able to take back control of 56 properties and were awarded judgment for sums totalling in excess of £750,000 across the portfolio.  They were also awarded costs (subject to detailed assessment), which whilst high for what the court would ordinarily see on a 55.8 hearing, were nothing like what the costs would have been 56 separate actions given the pooled resources and economies of scale.

This case deserves attention, as it is a remarkable example of what can be achieved within the scope of the rules.  Of course, the facts have to be right, and it is not every landlord of multiple properties who might be able to bandwagon cases together in this way, but it may often be worth considering what might be possible.  It also needs to be stressed that thorough preparation and ferocious attention to detail in the marshalling and presentation of the evidence, which called for close co-operation and teamwork between counsel and instructing solicitor, was crucial in giving the court a very clear understanding of it was being asked to do.

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