Bradford & Bingley Plc v Rashid

JurisdictionUK Non-devolved
CourtHouse of Lords
JudgeLORD HOFFMANN,LORD HOPE OF CRAIGHEAD,LORD WALKER OF GESTINGTHORPE,LORD BROWN OF EATON-UNDER-HEYWOOD,LORD MANCE
Judgment Date12 July 2006
Neutral Citation[2006] UKHL 37
Date12 July 2006

[2006] UKHL 37

HOUSE OF LORDS

Appellate Committee

Lord Hoffmann

Lord Hope of Craighead

Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe

Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood

Lord Mance

Bradford & Bingley plc
(Appellants)
and
Rashid (FC)
(Respondent)

Appellants:

Justin Fenwick QC

Nicole Sandells

(Instructed by Addleshaw Goddard)

Respondents:

Christopher Nugee QC

William Hanbury

(Instructed by Williscroft & C

LORD HOFFMANN

My Lords,

1

The chief question is whether a letter containing an acknowledgement of a debt for the purposes of section 29(5) of the Limitation Act 1980 is inadmissible on the ground that the letter formed part of a negotiation with a view to the creditor giving the debtor time to pay or accepting a lesser amount. In common with all of your Lordships, I consider that the letter was admissible. But there is some difference of opinion over the reasons and I must therefore state my own. There is also a subsidiary question as to whether the letters contained acknowledgements within the meaning of the Act. They are set out in the speech to be delivered by my noble and learned friend Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood and I agree with him and my noble and learned friend Lord Hope of Craighead that references in the letter of 26 September 2001 to an "outstanding balance" and in the letter of 4 October 2001 to an "outstanding amount" are plain acknowledgements of the existence of a debt. It is clear on the authorities that nothing more is needed.

2

The more complex question is why the letters are admissible. There is no doubt that they formed part of a negotiation. They were written in reply to an invitation from the building society to make them an offer. Judge Hawkesworth QC, sitting in the Bradford County Court and hearing an appeal from the Deputy District Judge, who had admitted one of the letters and given judgment for the building society, regarded this as sufficient to exclude the letters on the grounds that they were impliedly written without prejudice. He said:

"What was in issue was enforcement, and it seems to me there is equally a public policy issue in encouraging the parties to reach agreement as to the repayment of a debt as there is in encouraging them to agree as to the existence of a debt."

3

The Court of Appeal agreed. I doubt whether anyone could object to the general sentiment expressed. Even when the indebtedness cannot be denied, the parties should be encouraged to agree on the method by which it should be discharged, if necessary giving the debtor time to pay. But the question is how this policy can best be given effect and here, it seems to me, the judge and the Court of Appeal took a rather one-sided view of the matter. They looked only at encouraging the debtor to be open with his creditor without fear of what he said being used against him. But it takes two to negotiate and there is also a public policy in encouraging the creditor not to initiate legal proceedings. The acknowledgement rule plays an important part in furthering this policy because it means that a creditor, negotiating on the basis that his debt has been acknowledged, can proceed with the negotiations and give time to pay without being distracted by the sound of time's winged chariot behind him. It is also unfair that a debtor who does not dispute his indebtedness should be able to ask for time and use that indulgence to rely on the statute. A good example is the celebrated case of Spencer v Hemmerde [1922] 2 AC 507, in which a member of the Bar borrowed £1,000 for two months in 1910 and then did not pay it back. In 1915 there was a correspondence in which the creditor pressed for payment and the debtor acknowledged his indebtedness but sought to gain time. In consequence of this correspondence the creditor, as Viscount Cave put it, "stayed his hand". When proceedings were commenced in 1920, the debtor pleaded the statute of limitations. As the law then stood, it was also necessary that there should be not only an acknowledgement but also an inference of a promise to pay. The issue before the House was whether such a promise could be inferred. There was no suggestion that the letters might be excluded as written in the course of negotiations - a significant omission to which I shall in due course return. However, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the House, in deciding that the letters were sufficient to lift the time bar, was influenced by the injustice of a debtor asking for time to pay an acknowledged debt and then pleading the statute. As counsel for the creditor said (at p. 510), "the debtor…was asking for an indulgence, and by means of those letters he obtained the indulgence which enabled him to set up the statute."

4

The policy of encouraging negotiation therefore requires that the law should give effect to two objectives: first, the objective furthered by the normal without prejudice rule, which allows the parties to speak freely without fear that their statements will be relied upon as admissions if negotiations should break down, and secondly, the objective of the special acknowledgement rule in the Limitation Act, which allows a creditor to give time to negotiate for the payment of an admitted indebtedness without fear that the claim will become statute barred. These two objectives may sometimes appear to pull in opposite directions, although I hope to demonstrate that upon a proper analysis they do not.

5

The Court of Appeal, as I have said, did not recognise any possibility of conflict because they gave no weight to the policy of the acknowledgement rule. In fact, I think that the decision of the Court of Appeal would largely destroy that rule. In the nature of things, most acknowledgements will be coupled with attempts to obtain time to pay or remission of part of the debt. As Lord Sumner said in Spencer v Hemmerde [1922] 2 AC at p. 526:

"as a rule the debtor who writes such letters has no intention to bind himself further than he is bound already, no intention of paying so long as he can avoid payment, and nothing before his mind but a desire, somehow or other, to gain time and avert pressure.

In other words, he intends to initiate or pursue a negotiation as to how and how much of the debt should be paid. It is of course possible that a debtor in arrear might write an acknowledgement unaccompanied by any suggestion that he should be allowed time to pay. But, looking at the examples of acknowledgements which have been admitted and construed as such in the past, I think that such cases would be unusual. Certainly in Spencer v Hemmerde there was material upon which counsel for the debtor, if the thought had occurred to him, could have argued that his client's letters formed part of an attempt at negotiation. Likewise in Dungate v Dungate [1965] 1 WLR 1477, the debtor's letter saying:

"Keep a check on totals and amounts I owe you and we will have account now and then…. Sorry I cannot do you a cheque yet. Terribly short at the moment"

bears a strong family resemblance to the letters in this case. The same is true of the acknowledgement in the Canadian case of Phillips v Rogers [1945] 2 WWR 53, 56:

"Re your correspondence re Mr C H Phillips claim $1300 which he is prepared to settle November 1 st for $700. Please thank Mr Phillips for the kind offer. I have no idea where I am going to get $700 and meet your demands by November 1st unless I rob a bank and I really don't think a case of this kind warrants such drastic action on my part. If Mr Phillips or yourself have any ideas how I can get that amount of money, honestly I shall be pleased to consider them."

6

These three letters must be typical of those written by hard pressed debtors since time immemorial and they all either respond to invitations to negotiate terms of payment or attempt to initiate such negotiations. If the acknowledgements they contain are excluded by the without prejudice rule, that will be an end of the rule.

7

In the Court of Appeal, Sir Martin Nourse did not accept this. He said (at paragraph 29):

"each of these cases depends in the end on its own facts and it is difficult to believe that this case will serve as a precedent for any other."

8

This seems to me to make things worse rather than better. The Court disavows any statement of principle by which the correspondence in cases like Spencer v Hemmerde [1922] 2 AC 507, Dungate v Dungate [1965] 1 WLR 1477 and Phillips v Rogers [1945] 2 WWR 53 can be distinguished. This would be bound to lead to fine distinctions and a good deal of litigation.

9

It is therefore necessary to find a principle which would preserve the acknowledgement rule without doing damage to the without prejudice rule. The solution proposed by my noble and learned friend Lord Hope of Craighead, based on Scottish authority, is to deny altogether the application of the without prejudice rule to unqualified admissions, even if made in the course of negotiations for a settlement. In Scotland, this is based upon a fairly recent line of authority going back to the decision of Lord Wylie in Watson-Towers Ltd v McPhail 1986 SLT 617.

10

Watson-Towers was a motion for summary judgment for the value of goods which had been supplied subject to a reservation of title clause. The pursuer's evidence consisted of a letter from the defender making an offer expressed to be without prejudice but which attached a schedule listing the goods in its possession. Lord Wylie held that the schedule was admissible because it was, on the true construction of the letter, not a "hypothetical admission or concession for the purpose of securing a settlement" but a statement of fact.

11

This case was followed by Lord Sutherland in Daks Simpson Group plc v Kuiper 1994 SLT 689, another motion for summary judgment in a claim against a director for an account...

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