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BAILIFFS seized £118,000 in assets from Surrey County Council after its in-house lawyers missed a litigation time limit "through pressure of work" and as a result had a judgment entered by default against them.
The judgment was on an alleged debt of £118,000 arising from a dilapidation claim by a commercial landlord from which the council had previously rented office space.
Surrey councillors and staff were surprised when a Sheriff's officer arrived unexpectedly at County Hall in Kingston and proceeded to label office equipment for removal and sale.
However, the officer agreed instead to take walking possession of two valuable paintings owned by the council.
"The whole thing was bizarre," said a council source.
County solicitor Jonathan Jessup said the council, which claims it had not seen the judgment, was both contesting the debt claim and also applying to stay the judgment.
But landlord Allied Development Holdings, represented by Kingston solicitor Robin Coleman of Coleman & Betts, is understood to be contesting the stay application, due to be heard in court later this month.
Surrey County Council vacated a property owned by Allied in March 1994. Allied then served a schedule of dilapidation, under normal landlord and tenant procedure, claiming £118,000.
Surrey claims that Allied knew it intended to fight the case. "We don't consider that the dilapidations are due, because of [Allied's] redevelopment of the site and because we have subtenants, so we pass the liabilities to them," said in-house solicitor, Nigel Carey.
However, Jessop claims neither Allied nor its solicitors notified Surrey's lawyers of either the time limit lapse, judgment in default, or intention to send in the bailiffs.
He added: "We were certainly taken aback. Normally, if someone has a judgment against you, they write and tell you."
Surrey's lawyers were originally granted a time extension, which expired at noon on 23 December 1995. They only applied for a second extension after Christmas, "due to pressure of work," said Carey.
But Allied won judgment by default before Surrey's extension application hearing of 11 January. Allied's solicitors were unavailable for comment last week.