“Dear client, great news, we’ve finally got a judgment against the defendant!”

Guest article by Nicholas Parkinson, Solicitor Advocate at Hughes Walker Solicitors and panel solicitor for www.flightdelays.co.uk 

Turning paper into cash

Unfortunately, this milestone, in a claim that has taken months if not years to pursue, is suddenly followed by a number of caveats.  First of all, despite having an official court stamp on it, it turns out that this Judgment is ‘just a piece of paper’.  Solicitors need to somehow turn this piece of paper into cash. 

Easier said than done, not least because the majority of legal expense insurers do not provide legal funding to enforce judgments, only to obtain them.  And why would they?  The time and cost involved to pay a solicitor to execute a judgment against a rogue individual or a rogue business can be so time consuming and expensive that it makes it uneconomical to pursue, leading to thousands of pounds of debts being written off every year.  

Debts of under £600 are particularly vulnerable, making access to justice uneconomical for many people.  Could abolishing the £600 limit to instruct the Sheriffs (High Court Enforcement Officers) be the answer?

Who would dare to defy a court judgment?

We all know about the rogue individual and the charlatans of the business world who are ‘good for their money’ but even better at moving their assets around, making it a job for Sherlock Holmes to pin them down.    This is not a problem limited to rogue individuals or ‘phoenix companies’. 

Over recent years there has been a boom of litigation in relation to flight compensation for flights that are cancelled or subject to long delays. But surely a well-established international airline would never defy a court Judgment?  Think again. 

Several solicitors dealing with flight compensation claims have discovered that, unlike the Lannisters in the popular TV series ‘Game of Thrones’, the airlines do NOT always ‘pay their debts’.

Why would airlines refuse to pay their debts?

Floodgates.  In the minds of some airlines, readily paying claims that they are legally obliged to pay only encourages more and more people to claim.  The problem for them is, they can’t bury their heads in the sand for much longer. 

There are thousands of claimants taking legal action against airlines using claim specialists and they are not likely to go away any time soon. 

How can the Sheriffs help?

With claim values limited to €250, €400 and €600 EUR per passenger, thousands of claimants receive a court Judgment for a total amount under £600, leaving them unable to instruct High Court Enforcement Officers (HCEOs), formerly known as Sheriffs, instead having to instruct the County Court Bailiffs.  

In theory, it shouldn’t be too difficult to enforce a judgment against an airline with an established presence in the UK with or without the help of an HCEO.  Amazingly, however, some airlines with a notable UK presence still fail to pay claims unless court proceedings are issued, judgments are issued and enforcement action is taken. 

With the greatest respect to the County Court Bailiffs, it is well known and still true today that the tenacity and extended powers available to HCEOs enable them to turn ‘paper into cash’ much sooner.  In some cases, claimants seeking flight compensation have had to wait over 6 months for County Court Bailiffs to get a result, whereas the HCEOs have been able to do so within only a few weeks. 

The next consideration concerns those airlines that have a UK presence, but are somewhat more ‘secretive’ as to where their assets are based.  This is where the tenacity of HCEOs to investigate and track down what, if any, assets an airline has within the jurisdiction can provide invaluable to solicitors.   

The plot thickens further with the foreign airlines that conveniently (for them) have no assets permanently based in the UK.   They do, however, regularly land their aircraft at UK airports every day.  Although grounding an aircraft is certainly a ‘last resort’, this is something that potentially HCEOs would consider when needs must.

There are thousands of County Court Judgments out there that are still no more than ‘pieces of paper’.  HCEOs are currently unable to assist because individually each judgment often amounts to less than £600, even though collectively some airlines owe millions of pounds in compensation that is yet to be paid out. 

If only the £600 limit were abolished, maybe the Sheriffs would be able to bring these rogue airlines to justice once and for all.

Any objections from the side-lines?

Flight compensation lawyers are certainly not the first to call for the £600 limit to be abolished, and they will not be the last.   The limit has already been lowered twice, first in 1995 and again in 1998.  In doing so, the MoJ opened the door to ‘access to justice’ for millions of people across the UK. 

Of course, there are always objections to any legislative change.  It has been argued that opening the door to High Court Enforcement Officers such as The Sheriffs Office could risk adding debt to already ‘debt ridden’ debtors.  The short response:  if you have debts, and you have the cash or assets to pay those debts, do the honourable thing and pay your debts before you incur additional costs!

Certainly, however, in the context of flight compensation there can be no sympathy for the devil, in this case the devil being those rogue airlines that make millions of pounds every year in profit, but think they are above the law by refusing to pay claims until someone literally comes knocking at the door. 

Litigation that could and should be avoided in the first place is not good news for anyone who pays taxes to fund the court service.  This won’t end until these rogue airlines realise that there is nowhere to hide.  Letting HCEOs enforce by abolishing the £600 limit may be an important step towards realising that goal.

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