Issuing multiple claims on one claim form: when is it permissible?
On 15 July 2022, a ruling was handed down in Abbott & Ors v Ministry of Defence in which Master Davison gave important guidance on circumstances where the court may rule it impermissible to issue a claim form which contains multiple claimants.
The claim was commenced on behalf of 3,450 claimants who are each pursuing military deafness claims against the MOD (the Abbott Claim). Crucially, it was issued on a single claim forms, and was issued protectively due to the limitation implications of the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act 2021.
The Abbot Claim follows a similar, smaller, group action (the Turner Claim) involving some 250 claimants (also issued on one claim form and represented by the same solicitors) which had been stayed in May 2018 to allow negotiated dispute resolution to occur.
In December 2019, Senior Master Fontaine ruled in Bargh & Ors v MOD that it was impermissible for a cohort of 5 non-freezing cold injury claims pursued against the MOD to be issued on a single claim form. She ruled that the claims, “had very little in common other than the fact they were all of the same type of injury and all against the MOD”.
The issue was then raised before Master Davison in relation to the Turner Claim, and he ordered that the stay be amended to require, “that in every case where the stay was lifted, the claimant had then to issue a separate claim form (with payment of the relevant issue fee) and serve Particulars of Claim and medical evidence etc in the normal way”. He subsequently noted in retrospect that, “This order was something of a concession reflecting the fact that the appropriateness of joining them all together on one claim form had initially been overlooked”.
The Abbot Claim
Now in the Abbot Claim, Master Davison has once again ruled that it was impermissible to, “join multiple claimants with widely differing claims to one claim form”. In reaching this conclusion, he noted several points:
- The management of the claims was analogous the procedures of a Part 19 Group Litigation Order (GLO) where there would be “a mandatory requirement to issue a claim form and pay the relevant court fee for every claim on the Register” [paragraph 6.1A of PD19B].
- CPR r. 19.1 states, “any number of claimants…may be joined as parties to a claim”, in principle. This is, however, subject to CRP r.7.3 which states, “a claimant may use a single claim form to start all claims which can be conveniently disposed of in the same proceedings”.
- Master Davison held it was, “not seriously arguable” that the Turner Claim could be ‘conveniently disposed of’ in the same proceedings. Instead, he ruled that the individual claims feature a common defendant and some common themes, they otherwise present a, “huge variety of unitary claims”. He was also persuaded that there, “obviously could not be a trial of 3,500 claims at one sitting” and that it was “not realistic” to suppose that the trial of ‘lead cases’ could lead to the resolution of the remaining cohort. Instead, the single claim would likely generate, “multiple tracks and multiple trials”.
- Including 3,500 claimants on one claim form would put an, “impossible strain on the court's computerised case management system”. Master Davison referred to a recent issue where court staff erroneously closed an entire group action when they were informed an individual claim had settled.
In contrast with the Turner Claim, Master Davison did not think it appropriate to stay the claims where that envisages that the proceedings would one day be “revived and progressed”. He thought a stay would, in reality, be a species of standstill agreement which would not be a proper use of the court’s procedures. Instead, he ordered that individual claim forms must be issued within 6 months, failing which the claims will be struck out. In doing so, the Master noted that the claimants must now address how to fund the resulting court fees and to determine which of the 3,500 will be taken forward.
It should be conceded that the Abbott Cohort of claims contain less commonality than may exist in some group actions - for example, a product liability action involving a common device. The decision notes that the Claimants’ solicitors knew, “full well” that Master Davison and Senior Master Fontaine had already ruled their approach impermissible.
However, some claimant practitioners may still view this ruling as harsh for claimants. Paragraph 6.1A of PD19 (cited above) only states: “A claim must be issued before it can be entered on a Group Register” without specifying that separate claim forms must be used. Moreover, the published list of GLOs reveals various examples of cases where multiple claimants have been issued on one claim form (and there will be many others which were resolved via standard case management or alternative dispute resolution).
Multinational corporate accountability litigation particularly provides numerous examples of extremely large and factually complex multiparty actions being pursued under ‘group claim forms’. Earlier this year, the High Court also handed down a judgment dealing with the circumstances in which claimants can be added to a claim form in diesel emissions litigation which involves many thousands of claimants.
The ability to issue an appropriate group of claims under a single claim form often undoubtedly increases access to justice and currently, collective actions are still only available in competition claims in this jurisdiction. Court fees are generally 5% of the value of a claim up to a maximum of £10,000. These can easily become unaffordable to the vast majority of claimants who do not qualify for a fee remission. The availability of litigation funding for court issue fees running tens of thousands of pounds may be extremely limited particularly where, as was the case in the Turner Claim, it is necessary to issue protective proceedings.
Permission to appeal was refused by Master Davison as, “not seriously arguable” but an application for permission may be renewed to a High Court Judge within 21 days. The legal sector will be following such an appeal with interest.
Judgment Abbott & Ors v Ministry of Defence
  EWHC 1807 (QB)
 Boake Allen v Revenue & Customs Commissioners  1 WLR 1386 also cited
 See, for example: Vedanta Resources PLC & Anor v Lungowe & Ors  UKSC 20; Okpabi & Ors v Royal Dutch Shell Plc & Anor  UKSC 3; Jalla & Ors v Royal Dutch Shell Plc & Ors  EWHC 2118 (TCC); Alame & & Ors v Royal Dutch Shell Plc & Anor  EWHC 989 (TCC)
 See Rawet & Ors v Daimler AG & Ors  EWHC 235 (QB)