Case Summary: Promontoria (Oak) Ltd v Emanuel & Others [2021] EWCA Civ 1682

The Court of Appeal recently handed down judgment in 4 appeals involving the same Claimant, whose cases all involved assigned debts.

Henderson LJ, Phillips LJ and Nugee LJ gave a joint judgment, which affirmed the principles previously set out by Henderson LJ in Hancock v Promontoria (Chestnut) Ltd [2020] EWCA Civ 907 regarding the approach to be taken to a redacted document on which the Claimant relied to prove title to sue.

The appeals all concerned debtors who had put the assignee to proof of its title to sue. Notably on a number of occasions where an assignee sues a debtor, the debtor does not put the assignee to proof. On those facts, paragraph [56] of the judgment would appear to be apposite:

“…a debtor who has made no attempt to clarify the position with the assignor, and can point to nothing suggesting that the assignor disputes the assignment, will usually not find it easy to suggest that there is a real doubt as to the assignee’s title such that the Court should find that the assignee has failed to prove it.”

This is an expression of the principle that the Court ought only to decide issues that have been put before it, rather than taking points which neither party has pleaded or put in issue. Earlier this year, the Court of Appeal articulated reasoning to this effect in Satyam Enterprises Ltd v Burton & Anor [2021] EWCA Civ 287. In other words, if a Defendant to an assigned debt claim does not put the Claimant to proof as to their title to sue, it is not for the Judge to then take issue with said title.

In these appeals, the title to sue had indeed been put in issue; in each case, the Claimant had responded by adducing a redacted deed of assignment as evidence of its title to sue. The legible remaining parts of the redacted documents identified the assignor, assignee and the debts which formed the subject of the claims.

The Court of Appeal upheld the Claimant’s appeal in the Emanuel case itself, and dismissed the debtors’ appeals in the other 3 cases.

The debtors had contended that because a redacted document hampered the Court’s ability to construe that document, it so occluded the ability to deduce the effect it had, such that the Court could not find that an assignment had occurred. The Court disagreed, stating at [46] that the “ultimate question is always whether it is possible for the Court to reach a safe conclusion on the effect of the document: if it cannot, it would be unfair to the other party for the Court to proceed on the basis that the document had a particular effect, but if it can, there is no reason why it should not do so, and it would be unfair on the party relying on the document to refuse to do so.”

The Court reiterated at [87] that the ultimate question was “whether the trial judge could safely resolve the issue of [the Claimant’s] title to sue on the material in evidence before [them]”.

The principles from Hancock (in particular, those espoused at paragraphs [74], [75] and [89] of that judgment) were reaffirmed, with the Court stressing that there is no absolute rule that an unredacted version of a document is necessary when the Claimant is put to proof. If redactions are to be made, then they should be “fully explained and justified by the party making the redaction, with sufficient particularity for the Court to be able to rule on the need for redaction if it is challenged”.

The upshot of the Court’s decision is that redactions to a document such as a deed of assignment must be accompanied by an explanation and justification as to why they have been made. However, if the Court can safely conclude from a redacted document that the title to sue is established, then if that is the only necessary element which is in issue, there is nothing preventing the Court from concluding that valid assignment had indeed taken place.

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