The whole purpose of the civil justice system is to achieve just and final resolution of frequently intractable disputes – and, as a guideline Court of Appeal decision in an inheritance case made plain, that includes saving litigants from themselves by encouraging them to settle their differences.
The case concerned a widow's claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 for reasonable financial provision from her husband's estate. The executor of the estate resisted her claim and opposed a judge's suggestion that a procedure be adopted whereby the opposing arguments would be submitted to an early neutral evaluation (ENE). Given the executor's refusal of consent to that course being taken, the judge took the view that she had no power to order an ENE hearing.
In upholding the widow's appeal against that decision, the Court noted that in many cases – particularly financial relief proceedings in divorce, inheritance disputes and boundary rows between neighbours – the parties are resistant, or even hostile, to any suggestion that their dispute might be resolved by agreement. In such cases, the ENE procedure has a proven track record as an invaluable means of focusing minds on the possibility of settlement.
The Court found that, on a true interpretation of the relevant procedure rule, the judge was not required to obtain the consent of either party before ordering an ENE hearing. Directing that such a hearing take place as soon as possible, the Court noted that it would not involve any material obstruction of or constraint on the executor's access to justice and had the potential to save substantial legal costs.