Royal Courts of Justice


London WC2

Wednesday, 8th December 1999

B e f o r e:




- - - - - - -




- - - - - - -

(Computer-aided Transcript of the Stenograph Notes of

Smith Bernal Reporting Limited

180 Fleet Street, London EC4A 2HD

Telephone No: 0171-404 1400

Fax No: 0171-404 1424

(Official Shorthand Writers to the Court)

- - - - - - -

MR R JAY QC (instructed by the Treasury Solicitor, London SW1H 9JS) appeared on behalf of the Applicant.

THE RESPONDENT did not appear and was unrepresented.


(As approved by the Court)

(Crown Copyright)

Wednesday, 8th December 1999

1. LORD JUSTICE ROSE: Smith J will give the first judgment.

2. MRS JUSTICE SMITH: There is before the court an application on behalf of the Attorney General for a civil proceedings order under section 42 of the Supreme Court Act 1981, as amended, so that John Anthony Yeo be declared a vexatious litigant and be prevented from issuing or continuing any civil proceedings without the leave of the court. Mr Yeo, the Respondent, has not appeared before the court today.

3. The grounds of the application are that the Respondent has habitually and persistently and without any reasonable ground instituted vexatious civil proceedings.

4. The case arises out of the Respondent’s relationship with Mr Jack Rodney Smallwood Ellis, now deceased. The Respondent met and formed a relationship with Mr Ellis in the 1970s. Both men were homosexual and their relationship was an intimate one. After some time it ended and the Respondent spent some years abroad. In 1993 their relationship resumed and the Respondent moved into Mr Ellis’s house on The Embankment, Twickenham. By this time Mr Ellis was 79 years old and incapacitated due to a stroke which he had suffered in 1989. He also had Parkinson’s disease. The Respondent was a much younger man; he is now 53.

5. Mr Ellis was much given to making wills. He made one in 1971 and then between 1990 and 3rd March 1994 he made no less than six more. These contained provision for the Respondent, which increased step by step so that in the will of 3rd March 1994 he was named as Mr Ellis’s sole beneficiary. On 15th July 1994 Mr Ellis made another will, leaving his entire estate to a local charity called the Twickenham Museum. In making that will he did not have the assistance of solicitors and he failed to appoint executors. The will was witnessed by two ladies, a Mrs Payan and a Mrs Cox, who worked in a help centre for the aged in Twickenham.

6. Thereafter, Mr Ellis and the Respondent continued to live together in the house on The Embankment. The Respondent looked after Mr Ellis. Shortly before his death, which occurred on 20th October 1994, Mrs Payan delivered the most recent will to Mr Ellis’s solicitors and the Respondent, Mr Yeo, became aware of its existence. It appears that Mr Yeo caused Mr Ellis to write a letter to his solicitors instructing them to countermand that will and indeed to countermand all his previous wills save for the one of 20th March 1994. However, before there was any opportunity for Mr Ellis to make a new will with the assistance of his solicitors, he died. The Respondent remained thereafter living in the property.

7. In June 1995 Mr Wilson and Mr Plummer, who were trustees of the Twickenham Museum obtained probate of Mr Ellis’s last will. In March 1996 they commenced proceedings in the County Court seeking possession of the house on The Embankment. The Respondent defended those proceedings on the basis that he was the true owner of the property, and he indicated that he intended to challenge probate of the will. The proceedings were then adjourned pending the outcome of High Court proceedings which were to begin soon afterwards.

8. Shortly afterwards, the Respondent commenced an action in the Chancery Division against Mr Wilson and Mr Plummer as personal representatives and trustees. He alleged that the will of 15th July 1994 was invalid on two grounds. First, Mr Ellis had not known what he was doing and had not acknowledged or approved of the will before signing it, and second, he had made it under undue influence.

9. The case was tried by His Honour Judge Howarth sitting as Deputy High Court Judge and judgment was given in October 1997. The claim failed and the judge made it plain that he regarded the Respondent’s allegations as completely unmeritorious.

10. In December 1997 the Respondent took out a summons seeking an extension of time in which to appeal. In June 1998 Nourse LJ refused the application, observing that the proposed appeal had no real prospect of success. Nonetheless, an application was renewed to the full court who dismissed it with costs on 10th February 1999. The costs order made at each stage of that action remain unpaid.

11. Going back to February 1997 the Respondent made a claim against the trustees under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. The action was begun late. No evidence was ever served in support, and it was struck out in October 1998.

12. Meanwhile, on 23rd July 1997, that is before the hearing before Judge Howarth, the Respondent commenced another action against the trustees. In this, he alleged that there had been an agreement between Mr Ellis and him, giving rise to a propriety estoppel in his favour over Mr Ellis’s estate. He claimed that Mr Ellis had promised to bequeathed him his estate if he (the Respondent) would stay in the house and looked after him until his death. The defendants defended the claim and counterclaimed for money which they alleged had been taken wrongfully by Mr Yeo from the estate since Mr Ellis’s death by use of an automatic telling machine. That matter came before Mr Jonathan Sumption QC sitting as Deputy High Court Judge on 27th July 1998. He dismissed the claim and ordered the Respondent to pay £7,300 to the defendants on the counterclaim plus interests and costs. Mr Yeo did not appeal that order.

13. Soon after judgment had been given in that case, the possession action was set back in motion, and it came on for hearing in December 1998 before His Honour Judge Oppenheimer. He ruled in the Plaintiffs (that is the Trustees’) favour, and ordered Mr Yeo to deliver up possession within 28 days to pay arrears of rent and mesne profits and interest. Mr Yeo sought to appeal but leave was refused on 27th January 1999.

14. In the meantime, going back to 18th November 1998, the Respondent had commenced two actions, one in the Chancery Division against the trustees and the other in the Queen’s Bench Division against the London Borough of Richmond on Thames. The action against the trustees was no more than an attempt to relitigate the validity of the will of 15th 1994 July. The original allegations of undue influence and want of knowledge and approval were repeated with several new allegations being added, including one of fraud. This action was struck out as an abuse of process on 19th March 1999 with indemnity costs.

15. The Queen’s Bench action against the local authority alleged negligence by the defendants and a conspiracy between them and Mrs Payan, one of the witnesses to the final will, to uphold an effective will contrary to the known and specified wishes of the testator. This was a novel attempt to extract money from the situation which had arisen upon the death of Mr Ellis. In effect, Mr Yeo alleged that the local authority had intermeddled in the business of the will under the guise of giving care and attention to him under their statutory powers and duties. A full defence was drafted which included a denial that the defendants owed any duty of care to Mr Yeo in providing services and assistance to Mr Ellis. The defendants then applied for summary judgment and the claim was dismissed in October 1999, as having no real prospect of success.

16. Finally, the Respondent commenced a sixth action again the trustees in the Queen’s Bench Division claiming possession of property from within the house on The Embankment at Twickenham. From the Statement of Claim, which was not prepared until after proceedings for an injunction had been completed, the Respondent claimed possession of a very long list of items, some of which were personal, but many of which were not obviously so. The list appears to comprise the entire furnishing of the house. It will be appreciated that anything that had belonged to Mr Ellis now belonged to the trustees of the museum. Moreover, Mr Yeo owed the trustees substantial sums as damages and costs arising from the litigation.

17. The history of what occurred appears in the defence which was eventually filed to this action. I bear in mind that no evidence has ever been filed and this case has not been adjudicated upon, but with that caveat the story appears to be that when he was evicted by the bailiffs from the house on 28th January following the dismissal of his application for leave to appeal the possession order in the Court of Appeal the day before, Mr Yeo took with him a suitcase of personal belongings. The next day over the telephone the trustees’ solicitors agreed to deliver to him some personal papers as specified by him and also offered that if he were to present a list of his personal possessions and personal household items, those too would be delivered to him. That was done, and on 11th February 1999 61 cartons of goods were collected from the property on Mr Yeo’s behalf.

18. Meanwhile, ex parte, and without notice to the trustees or their solicitors, Mr Yeo obtained an injunction preventing the trustees from disposing of his property. There is dispute on the papers as to whether that injunction was ever served. On 11th February the sheriff, acting on behalf of the trustees, seized the remaining goods in the property (insofar as they did not already belong to the trustees) in execution of Mr Yeo’s judgment debts. The following day, still ex parte, Mr Yeo obtained a continuation of the injunction.

19. On 19th February, this time inter partes, the injunction was discharged on the trustees’s undertaking that Mr Yeo could have his orthopedic bed and certain other identified personal items. One might have hoped that matters would have ended there, but on 24th February Mr Yeo served a long Statement of Claim which is plainly vexatious in nature, putting the the trustees to the trouble and expense of filing a full defence to that action. It has been confirmed to us this morning that no further step has been taken in that action.

20. That is the sad history of this case. For the Attorney-General it is submitted that the Respondent’s conduct evinces an obsession over the house on The Embankment at Twickenham and its contents and a grudge against those whom Mr Yeo perceives have wronged him. It is submitted that to bring three Chancery Division actions where one would have sufficed is in itself vexatious. It is accepted, of course, that the first Chancery Division action was properly brought, although it was resoundingly unsuccessful.

21. The two actions commenced on 18th November 1998 were, the Attorney General submits, plainly vexatious and the final action wholly unnecessary and its conduct also plainly vexatious. This, submits Mr Jay QC, on behalf of the Attorney, amounts to an habitual and persistent course of vexatious conduct and should be restrained. He submits that the trustees have been put to enormous trouble and expense. They have no prospect of recovering the damages and costs awarded to them. The inheritance is already much depleted and they should be saved, it is submitted, from further harassment and costs. Moreover, the public interest requires that an order should be made as the limited resources of the court are being wasted on vexatious litigation and those resources should properly be used for those with genuine disputes.

22. As I indicated, the Respondent has not attended today. Some time ago he consulted the Citizens Advice Bureau, who wrote on his behalf to the Treasury Solicitor. I think it right to treat the contents of that letter as being a submission on his behalf. It is said, first, that the number of actions arising as they do out of only one matter ought not to amount to a sufficient ground to justify an order under section 42. The number of actions involved is not as great as one often sees in cases of this kind. Moreover, they arise out of only one underlying matter, although there have been two different defendants.

23. It is pointed out that Mr Yeo had no history of causing trouble to the courts before Mr Ellis’s death. Indeed, we understand that he had never brought an action of any kind until he commenced his first Chancery Division action in 1996. Second, it is suggested that there does not appear to be any danger of a repetition of his conduct. Third, it is submitted that an order against him would be harsh as he is now in a difficult position. He is homeless, having been ejected from the house on The Embankment; he is living on benefits, as it appears that he has not had employment for many years; and he is in temporary accommodation. As a vexatious litigant it would be difficult for him to obtain advice. He had apparently informed the Citizens Advice Bureau that he had been unable to persuade any solicitor to take on his representation for the purpose of these proceedings. As a disadvantaged member of society, he might well need legal advice and might well need to approach the courts in future on matters wholly unrelated to the circumstances surrounding Mr Ellis’s will.

24. We have considered the case of In re Vernazza [1959] WLR 622 and have considered the whole picture presented by this application. We have considered the background to the litigation and the course of each action. Speaking for myself, I am satisfied that the Respondent’s conduct in bringing three actions in the Chancery Division in 1996 and 1997, where one would have sufficed, did amount to vexatious litigation. The two actions begun on 18th November were plainly vexatious and caused a great deal of expense and trouble. The final action was wholly unnecessary in the protection of his proper interests, and I am satisfied that Mr Yeo well knew that; he must have done. It appears to me that he brought that action as a form of harassment of the trustees. In my judgment, the Attorney-General has made out the grounds upon which he must base his application and I am satisfied that the Respondent has habitually and persistently and without any reasonable grounds instituted and pursued vexatious civil proceedings. I am satisfied also that in principle an order should be made.

25. However, it does appear to me that there is some merit in the submissions advanced on Mr Yeo’s behalf by the Citizens Advice Bureau. It is true to say that this case is not as bad as many that one sees and it is true also that Mr Yeo has not shown any propensity to direct actions against a great variety of people in an indiscriminate manner. I am satisfied, as I have said, that the trustees must be protected from my further actions arising out of this will, but I am not persuaded that it is necessary to impose an order which will be of indefinite duration.

26. We were helpfully referred by Mr Jay to the case of the Attorney-General v Price [1997] COD 250. In that case the court drew attention to the power of the court to make an order for a limited time period. That power came into existence in 1981 under the Supreme Court Act, but had, until 1997, not apparently been exercised. I have considered what period of time would be appropriate to give the trustees, and any other potential defendant who might be affected by an action arising out of Mr Ellis’s will, the necessary protection. I consider that any relevant limitation period will have expired and a suitable interval thereafter will also have passed if an order for 10 years from today were to be made. I consider that such an order would be appropriate. It would give the trustees the protection which they plainly need. It would cause Mr Yeo to cease wasting public resources and give him an opportunity to recover from the anger which he has plainly felt in the past few years as a result of the events of 1994. It would have the advantage of allowing him in the later years of his life freedom of access to the courts. I am conscious of how serious a matter it is to deprive a citizen of the right of access to the court and, in my judgment, an order for a period of 10 years would provide an appropriate balance between the interests of the trustees and the public, on the one hand, and Mr Yeo on the other. I would propose a civil proceedings order for a term of 10 years.

27. LORD JUSTICE ROSE: I agree. Accordingly, we shall make a civil proceedings order under section 42 of the Supreme Court Act 1981 for a period of 10 years from today.

Back To Queen’s Bench Index
Back To Site Index