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Judge dismisses bid to restrain presentation by councils of winding-up petitions over unpaid business rates

The High Court has thrown out a case against two councils brought by the director of a company already subject to a general civil restraint order and who made a “bizarre” suggestion to a judge.

In Shorts Gardens LLB v London Borough of Camden Council [2020] EWHC 1001 (Ch) Mr Justice Snowden said the case brought by Christine Harper, a director of Saint Benedict's Land Trust (SBLT) was “totally without merit”.

The London Borough of Camden and Preston City Council had applied for winding-up orders against SBLT and a related concern named Shorts Gardens because of unpaid business rates.

They said SBLT owed £51,985.57. It had been engaged in lengthy litigation against both Camden and Preston arguing it was not liable for the rates because it occupied the properties concerned for the charitable purpose of storing property for homeless people.

Snowden J had in December 2019 made a general civil restraint order against SBLT because it had “engaged in an extraordinary series of meritless and abusive applications in its attempts to avoid the payment of [business rates]”.

The application to restrain the council’s petition against SBLT was not made by SBLT itself, but by Christine Harper, a director and trustee.

She was represented by Harrison Carter, “which…claims to be a company entitled to provide legal services under one of the exemptions in section 23 of the Legal Services Act 2007” and which shares SBLT’s address, the judge said.

Camden said Shorts Gardens owed it £30,648.36 in unpaid rates and costs and that while “the application in relation to Shorts Gardens purports to have been made by the LLP itself, the application and statements in support are electronically signed in the name of Johan Van Huyssteen who describes himself as a director of Harrison Carter”, the judge said.

Each application sought injunctive relief on the basis that the debts were disputed on substantial grounds or subject to cross-claims.

Snowden J said Ms Harper lacked standing to bring the case as: “It is obvious that a civil restraint order against a company should not be capable of being evaded, or its efficacy diminished, by the simple expedient of a director or shareholder making the application instead of the company.

“Whatever Ms Harper's alleged motivation, in my judgment her application was a clear abuse of process.”

The judge said he had also been asked to look behind the liability orders secured by the two councils “on the ground that they amount to a miscarriage of justice or for some other compelling reason”.

He found there was “not the slightest basis for such a conclusion” and that therefore “there is no genuine or substantial dispute about any of the debts relied on in the petition”.

In an unusual postscript to the judgment, Snowden J said he had been sent two further statements by Harrison Carter shortly before he was due to hand down his revised judgment.

These argued that he should not deliver this judgment, and sought to reopen and reargue many of the points raised and to stay his order pending an application to appeal to the Court of Appeal or Supreme Court.

These documents included “the bizarre suggestion that I should ‘use this opportunity to help steer Parliament to what would be fair in the mind of public opinion’,” he said.

Snowden J said: “None of the material sent has any merit whatever. It does not cause me to change my mind in the slightest and I refuse to grant a stay of my order. I also strongly deprecate the conduct of Harrison Carter in sending these materials.

“Regrettably, this conduct is of a piece with its general modus operandi of bombarding the court with argumentative correspondence purporting to make applications without any legal or procedural merit.”

Mark Smulian

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