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In Taylor v Ribby Hall (The Times, 6 August 1997) the Master of the Rolls had to consider the court's jurisdiction to strike out a motion to commit as an abuse of process, rather than simply considering the substantive complaint, and to do so in respect of delay before issuing the material proceedings.
The Court of Appeal considered that the dispute gave rise to a delicate balance between its general protective powers to prevent misuse of the court's procedures - even against those said to have defied the court - and its punitive and disciplinary powers.
In the underlying action, the plaintiffs, husband and wife, had sought substantial sums in respect of a contract for sale of shares and property - all concerned with a leisure development project in 1987-88. The deal having gone sour in December 1988, they obtained an ex parte Mareva injunction.
In June 1989, the defendants engaged the solicitor and the Mareva was varied - the solicitor giving an undertaking in respect of the conduct and proceeds of any relevant transaction. Within the next two months a transaction took place. The plaintiffs complained almost immediately. Within months they had discovered virtually all the basic facts for their complaints but they delayed issuing any summons/motion, writing only sporadic letters threatening proceedings. The defendants and the solicitor denied any breaches and more than once told the plaintiffs to "put up or shut up", but despite leading counsel advising immediate proceedings in 1990, the plaintiffs took no other steps until May 1995.
Although the first plaintiff died of cancer during this time, there was little to explain the delay and in June 1996, Mr Justice Collins struck out the motion as an abuse.
The surviving plaintiff challenged the court's power to strike out proceedings of this kind - where no limitation period applied - by any "pre-emptive" procedure, and appealed.
The Court of Appeal held that although the jurisdiction would be sparingly exercised, where a party delayed initiating proceedings within a reasonable time of discovering any contempt, there was power to strike out - the lack of any limitation period and the nature of the proceedings required complainants to proceed promptly. The appeal failed.