High Court Practice Direction 84 was signed by Mr Justice Kelly on 23 January 2019. The Practice Direction provides simply that from 4 February 2019, all motions seeking liberty to enter final judgment in summary debt cases will be set down for hearing before a Judge of the High Court instead of the Master of the High Court.
Despite its brevity this new Practice Direction will have a significant impact on the scheduling of summary debt cases and the manner in which they are handled.
The Master of the High Court is a quasi-judicial role. In other words, the Master has the power to make a very limited range of orders compared to a High Court Judge. For example, he can make a range of minor interlocutory orders and he can give liberty to enter final judgment in uncontested matters. Much of what the Master does is procedural or relates only to matters arising between the commencement of proceedings and the hearing.
One of his main roles is to manage the exchange of affidavits in summary debt cases. Once all affidavits are exchanged between the parties and if the Master is satisfied that all papers are in order, he will transfer the case to a High Court Judge. Practice Direction 84 has taken this role away from the Master.
The introduction of the Practice Direction will have a number of impacts. It is likely that very few motions in summary debt cases will issue before 4 February 2019. The Practice Direction will also result in the removal of an administrative step in contested summary debt cases. The Master had a very limited role to play in these cases which involved managing the exchange of affidavits before transferring the case to a High Court Judge. This step in contested summary debt cases has been removed by the introduction of the new Practice Direction.
It remains to be seen how the High Court will deal with this extra caseload. The Practice Direction states that summary debt cases will be listed in a common law motion list on an appropriate Monday. These lists are already under extreme pressure and the new Practice Direction will put a lot of additional pressure on these lists at least in the short term. The Master’s Court is an extremely busy Court. In the week of the announcement of the new Practice Direction there were almost 200 summary debt cases listed before the Master. It remains to be seen how the High Court will deal with the extra caseload. One or two High Court Judges may be allocated to deal with these additional cases. An extra common law list may be introduced to accommodate the extra cases.
There is a high rate of appeals of decisions of the Master and these appeals are heard by Judges of the High Court. These appeals will no longer be a feature of summary debt cases and this will free up at least some capacity. However it remains to be seen whether Practice Direction 84 will remain in place indefinitely and we may see a return of summary debt cases to the Master’s Court in the future.