Following a Section 8 case, CRT is bringing further court proceedings to get over £76,000 it claims it spent on legal action against a disabled boat dweller. George Ward’s Legal Aid covered advice but he was unable to obtain Legal Aid for representation in court. If he had been represented through Legal Aid, CRT would not be able to recover these legal costs.
CRT is aware that Mr Ward’s only income is Incapacity Benefit and Disability Living Allowance of £102 per week. He has been unable to work since an injury that left him disabled. Mr Ward’s only assets are his home, a pair of historic boats needing extensive repair work that he bought for £3,830. If CRT is successful in enforcing its costs order, it can petition for Mr Ward’s bankruptcy which means his boats can be sold to pay the costs, leaving him homeless. Much of the £76,000 CRT claims to have spent was used to pay the QC, Christopher Stoner, who unusually for this type of case, represented CRT in case management hearings as well as at the main trial. According to CRT’s Bill of Costs, Mr Stoner’s fees amount to almost £45,000.
BW/CRT started Section 8 proceedings in 2010 after Mr Ward was unable to get a Boat Safety Certificate in time to re-license his motor boat. On the day that he got the Certificate, BW issued the Section 8. During the court proceedings BW prevented him from re-licensing his butty boat, claiming that its licence depended on the motor boat being licensed, which was not true as both boats had been licensed independently. Mr Ward attempted to licence his boats several times but each time BW sent back his cheque, even when he tendered all the money BW alleged he owed including a disputed Late Payment Fee of £150.
Mr Ward eventually bought a second motor boat for £1,100 and tried to license the two boats not subject to Section 8 proceedings, but BW again returned his cheque. Shortly before the hearing in Bristol County Court in October 2012, he sold the first motor boat, using the proceeds to repair his second motor boat. The court granted the Section 8 but this was nullified by the fact that the boat had a new owner. The Judge declined CRT’s request to apply the Section 8 to any other boats belonging to Mr Ward and did not grant CRT the injunction it wanted to evict him from its 2,000 miles of waterways for ever. An injunction could have meant that Mr Ward risked being sent to prison simply for living on the two boats that had never been subject to Section 8 proceedings.
George Ward said “CRT’s move to take over £76,000 from me that they know I don’t have is vindictive and malicious. They are determined to hound me off the waterways. They failed with the Section 8, they failed to get an injunction, so they are trying another way to make me homeless”. He continued “This is harassment, they are trying to put psychological pressure on me so that I move off the canals. They won’t succeed, except over my dead body”.
CRT knows that if Mr Ward had obtained Legal Aid for representation in court it would not have been able to claim these costs from Mr Ward. There is no realistic prospect of recovering £76,000 from a 54-year-old disabled man on benefits whose only assets are worth less than £4,000. Civil court costs cannot be recovered through deductions from welfare benefits. Neither can costs be recovered from money paid to the same organisation for another purpose. CRT is aware that pursuing Mr Ward for this debt will make him homeless.
CRT could have allowed Mr ward to re-license his boat when he obtained the Boat Safety Certificate, and could have sought to recover the disputed late payment charge as a Small Claim. CRT could also have used its discretion under Section 17(11) of the British Waterways Act 1995 to permit his boat to be on the waterways without a Boat Safety Certificate until the certificate was obtained. Instead it vindictively pursued him with a Section 8 action and rejected all his attempts to pay.
In the absence of a Solicitor to represent him, Mr Ward was assisted in court by Nick Brown, Legal Officer of the National Bargee Travellers Association (NBTA). This was necessary partly because Mr Ward found the court hearings extremely distressing. In a move that was obviously intended to intimidate Mr Brown and silence the NBTA, CRT also sought a costs order against Mr Brown. The Judge rejected this, stating in the Judgment that Mr Brown had been “helpful and polite”.
The Royal Courts of Justice provides guidance regarding “McKenzie Friends” (unqualified assistants for people in court without a legal representative). Nowhere does this guidance include a warning that a McKenzie Friend is at risk of a costs order against them for helping someone who would otherwise face court proceedings alone and unassisted.