21 July 2010

Tales from Parliament House Vol. 5.

I thought the relevant passage was in Robert Louis Stevenson's Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes, but a quick look suggests I'm mistaken. At any rate, somewhere in the limited canon of literature which mentions the Court of Session, an author sketched one of the "Parliament House characters", infamous in his own day. This anonymous soul had a reputation for enthusiastic, serial and spurious litigation. Off the top of my head, I seem to recall that the piece comically recounted how this chap had simultaneously attempted to sustain two logically incompatible pleas in two different courts. Their Lordships happening to confer over lunch, the wretched man lost both causes. In any case, his hunger for actions and causes was not abated by this minor setback and he continued on his long, unsuccessful career as a long suffering party-litigant. The character came to mind yesterday, when I happened across the disposition of the reclaiming motion in the case of one Terence Patrick Ewing v. Times Newspapers Ltd. In this case, however, the serial suer was not a homegrown eccentric, but a English tourist who went to extraordinary lengths to try to be defamed in Scottish jurisdiction. Lord Gill, the Lord Justice Clerk, along with Lords Marnoch and Mackay of Drumadoon brought a brutal end of Mr Ewing's litigation in the Court of Session with the assessment that he had:

"... inflicted needless expense on the defender. He has imposed a needless burden on the overstretched resources of this court. It is time to bring down the curtain on this action before further time and money are wasted."

The whole judgements effuses a sort of measured, starchy disgust. So what the devil did Mr Ewing do? A number of things, as it happens. From the judicial documents, the whole story and its characters lurch from absurdity to pitiful absurdity. The action originated in an article which appeared in the Sunday Times and online on Times Online concerning planning applications in Weston-Super-Mare (one has to love the trivial sites in which law's stately grandeur unfolds). I quote from the Scottish Court's judgement:

"The essential points in the article complained of are that a body called the Euston Trust, with which the pursuer is associated, took a secret payment of £10,000 to drop its objections to a £16 million development in Weston-super-Mare; that the Euston Trust had objected to dozens of developments across Britain since its inception four years earlier and was suspected of taking money from other builders; that the pursuer told the Sunday Times that he intended to target the £2 billion redevelopment of derelict rail yards at Kings Cross and that in September 2005 at a meeting with a firm of housebuilders the then secretary of the Euston Trust, Keith Hammerton, said that he believed that the pursuer had often taken payments from other developers. According to the article, the minutes taken by an independent solicitor recorded a comment by Mr Hammerton that he had suspected for some time that the pursuer had received payments from developers to pull out of intended judicial review challenges. The article recorded that the pursuer emphatically denied having been offered, or having taken, payments from developers and said that Mr Hammerton, from whom he had dissociated himself, had not passed on the £10,000."

The paper basically alleged that Ewing was a rather dishonest and conniving "professional nimby", who turned his oppression into a not-so-quick buck, with planning applicants paying him to sod off  This Euston Trust was "an unincorporated and unregulated body run from a North London council flat by the claimant" - namely Mr Ewing - who amongst his other accomplishments is also "a convicted fraudster". Owing to no less than 37 actions raised by Mr Ewing, in December 1989 the English High Court declared him to be a "vexatious litigant," imposing certain judicial limitations on his capacity to indulge in his apparently endless and obsessive litigious hobby. Since 1989, Ewing has apparently petitioned the High Court to allow him to institute proceedings in no less than 19 other matters. A thirst unquenched, methinks. In the Scots judgement, the Lord Justice Clerk numbered:

"Ministers of the Crown, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Security Service, the Registrar of Companies, the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, the Legal Services Ombudsman, local authorities and developers are among his many victims."

One English High Court judge described him as having a "veracious appetite for civil litigation" and a rampant disposition not to pay the costs he imposes on those he takes it into his mind to sue. His case against the Times was just another in an unsuccessful train of actions, with Mr Justice Coulson refusing him leave to bring proceedings in England in 2008. The judgement is full of odd flourishes and droll understatement from the learned judge, which I can hardly do justice to in this truncated summary.  It also adds another charming feature to the twisted and knotted grain of Mr Ewing - in his legal letters, he likes to lapse into insulting and racist language and freely confess his pettifoggery. But what to do now? Despite an appeal, his English case seemed to have sputtered to a halt. Here is where the matter takes on a Scottish savour. Having had his claims repelled on a number of bases in England, he was not so readily to be defeated. Mr Ewing then promptly:

".... travelled to Scotland where he downloaded the internet versions of the article and read a hard copy of it in a public library. In June 2008 he raised the present action."

And to keep as many legal irons in the fire as possible, Mr Ewing took another wee trip. In Lord Justice Clerk Gill's words:

"At about that time the pursuer, seeking to be defamed in Northern Ireland, travelled to Belfast, downloaded the same versions of the article and read a hard copy of it. He then served two writs on the present defender in the High Court of Northern Ireland."

Things got a bit sticky for our "hero", however, when in December 2008 the Scottish judge Lord Brodie, ordered Ewing to produce £15,000 in caution in part citing Ewing's past conduct as a:

" ... determined recreational litigant with little regard for the constraints that the courts have attempted to impose, no appreciation of the proportionality of his actions and no concern for the financial interests of others."

The appeal before the Court of Session was primarily concerned with this caution. As noted at the outset, the hope was forlorn and the judgement crashes down in a quietly damning, understated way:

"The present action arises because the pursuer came to Scotland to acquire a cause of action. He has no connection with Scotland and has no apparent reputation here to defend. If he should have suffered hurt feelings when he read the article here, his hurt is self-inflicted. Even if there were to be a vestige of merit in the claim, this action would be disproportionate to its value."

To fritter away one's days with these persecutions, wringing happiness and significance from serving writs - its a pitiful caviling game. To offer Mr Ewing some constructive advice, might I suggest that he delves into some Stoic philosophy - the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius may be a splendid start - and slowly learn the art of not staking his happiness on other men's souls. It'll make for a far more healthsome and satisfying existence, I assure you.

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