Going Back on Admissions of Liability in Personal Injury Cases – High Court Ruling

Admissions of liability made in personal injury cases are generally binding and only rarely will defendants be permitted to go back on such concessions. The High Court made that point in the case of a young man who claimed to have suffered injury due to a local authority’s failure to place him for adoption as a baby.

The man launched a damages claim against the council on the basis that it should have removed him from the care of his mother and her foster parents before he was a month old and arranged his adoption. The council admitted liability in letters from its solicitors and formally in its defence to the claim. About seven years later, however, a judge upheld the council’s application to withdraw that admission and to mount a full defence to the claim.

Ruling on the man’s challenge to that outcome, the Court noted that the council had its change of heart following a Supreme Court decision which changed the law. In the light of that ruling the council argued, amongst other things, that it owed no duty of care to protect the man from harm caused by third parties.

In upholding the man’s appeal, the Court found that the judge was in no position to assess the extent to which his case was prejudiced by the council’s late withdrawal of its admission of liability. But for the delay of several years in assessing the man’s compensation – which was of the council’s own making – the case would have been done and dusted prior to the change in the law.

The council was entitled to consider its proper and legitimate interests in seeking to withdraw its admission. However, on the facts of the case, the Court found that it had behaved improperly in doing so. Its proposed amended defence to the claim gave no apparent consideration to the interests of the man, who had been in its long-term care. It also showed no apparent recognition of the difficult position in which it had placed him.

The Court concluded that the council could not properly go back on its admission of liability merely because the law had changed. The council’s application to withdraw its admission and amend its defence was dismissed and judgment was entered in the man’s favour. In the absence of agreement, the amount of his compensation would be assessed at a further hearing.

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