The court recently examined if stress or mental distress qualifies as a “special circumstance” for the purpose of renewing a summons.
Renewal of a summons
Under Order 8 Rule 1(4) of the Rules of the Superior Courts, the court can renew a summons for a period of 3 months “where satisfied that there are special circumstances which justify an extension, such circumstances to be stated in the order”.
The order granted in this case stated that the special circumstance justifying the extension was a delay due to a change of solicitor.
Special circumstances test
The requirement for “special circumstances” suggests that there must be some fact or circumstance that goes beyond the ordinary. Prior to the Court of Appeal’s decision in the case of Murphy v Health Service Executive  IECA 3, the courts had taken differing views on the test for applications for summons renewal. In that case, the Court of Appeal favoured a one-step approach - are there special circumstances to justify renewing the summons?
The key dates
Ms Nolan’s proceedings arose from a claim of alleged bullying and harassment with allegations dating as far back as 2008. The personal injuries summons issued on 23 July 2018 and expired on 22 July 2019. An application to renew the summons was made and granted on 18 November 2019, almost 4 months after it had expired.
It was submitted that the plaintiff was involved in various processes around the time the summons was issued including an appeal of a decision not to grant her early retirement. A final decision on that appeal was made on 22 July 2019 and communicated to the plaintiff’s solicitor on 23 July 2019. At that stage, consideration was given to a possible judicial review of the outcome of this process. A consultation was arranged with counsel to discuss this in October 2019 and it was ultimately decided not to pursue a judicial review.
The plaintiff’s solicitor then proceeded to make an application to renew the summons.
A deliberate decision
The court accepted the plaintiff’s solicitor’s evidence that he had made a deliberate decision not to serve the summons before it expired due to his concerns about the mental health and general vulnerability of his client.
The Statute of Limitations
It was noted that the plaintiff’s action would be statute barred if the order to renew the summons was set aside. The defendant’s counsel argued that it is well established that the fact a plaintiff’s action will be statute barred cannot of itself constitute a special circumstance for the purpose of Order 8. (Whelan v HSE and Brereton v National Maternity Hospital).
The departure must be justified
The court noted that while the plaintiff may have been fragile or stressed, it was difficult to imagine how that level of stress or distress “could have remained at such a high degree that it was not possible to even serve the summons”. The court made the point that once a summons has been served, all communication is between each parties’ solicitors. There was no medical evidence before the court to suggest that the plaintiff was not in a position to give instructions and the court could find no factual basis for the decision reached by the plaintiff’s solicitor.
The court stated that when a plaintiff decides to issue legal proceedings, they must ensure compliance with the time prescribed under the court rules. Any departure from this approach must be justified by special circumstances. The court held that there were no “special circumstances” to justify a departure from the court rules in this case and set aside the order renewing the summons.
This decision demonstrates the high bar which must be met by plaintiffs when seeking to justify the renewal of a summons. Any “special circumstances” relied upon must go beyond the ordinary to secure an extension of time to serve proceedings. While the court accepted that the plaintiff may have been stressed, the court did not believe, in the absence of medical evidence, that this qualified as a “special circumstance” for the purpose of a renewal.
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