Michael Clifford has found many people ditch the legal experts and fight their own case in court. Tom Talbot is one of those people... 

TOM Talbot had been a member of the Hermitage Golf Club for 40 years when the trouble began. He was a retired insurance official, and avid golfer at the club, in Lucan, Co Dublin.

He set about improving his handicap. This is the number of strokes allocated based on ability and means that more shots can be taken to reach the hole than the person’s true level of play would allow.

In July, 2003, the club’s handicap sub-committee sent Mr Talbot a certificate stating his was 13, with the words ‘general play (handicap-building)’ at the bottom of the cert.

Mr Talbot took exception and so began a long road that led to 83 days in the High and Supreme Courts, during which he represented himself against the club.

He claimed the words on the certificate meant that he was cheating at golf and he launched a defamation action on the back of it. The defendants included the Hermitage club, its handicap subcommittee, the chair of the club, and the Golfing Union of Ireland. Subsequently, he claimed other irregularities at the club, which complicated the actions.

Over 20 days in the High Court, Mr Talbot called a number of witnesses and questioned them at length. Some of the witnesses gave evidence that diminished rather than enhanced Mr Talbot’s case, but that didn’t prompt him to revisit his legal strategy.

He told the court that, in 2003 and 2004, the subcommittee had reduced his handicap six times, which he said was unprecedented in the decades he had been at the club.

No other player, he said, had ever been accused of handicap-building.

The Golfing Union of Ireland had carried out an audit at the club and had mistakenly suspended Mr Talbot’s handicap.

All of this emerged over twenty days of what one observer called “torturous” proceedings in the High Court.

The presiding judge, Daniel Herbert ruled that the words “handicap building” were defamatory, and any reasonable and well-informed golfer would fairly conclude that he was being accused of consciously and deliberately inflating his handicap to give himself an unfair advantage in the game by misrepresenting his true playing ability.

However, the judge said, he was also satisfied the words were not published to a third party, which is a requirement for a document to be libellous.

The certificate of his handicap was only addressed to Mr Talbot and contained in a sealed envelope left for him in the men’s competition room.

Justice Herbert’s ruling was delivered on July 27, 2012.

Over the following two years, Mr Talbot made a number of appeals to the Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled against him.

In delivering her ruling, Chief Justice Susan Denham called for better case-management in the courts to avoid so much time and resources being taken up with a case that should have been dealt with more quickly.

Judge Peter Charlton expanded on the point, including the observation that he wasn’t making a criticism of anybody in particular.

“As the Chief Justice points out in her judgment, with which I agree, the delivery of this judgment will constitute the 83rd day that the resources of the High Court and the Supreme Court have been directed towards this claim,” he ruled.

“This was, in essence, a very simple case: was it defamatory to say of an amateur golfer that he was “handicap-building”; was that statement published to anyone other than the maker of the statement and the subject of it; and, if ‘yes’ was the answer to these two questions, was publication on an occasion of qualified privilege not undermined by malice?”

He went on: “The resources of the courts are there for litigants. Those resources are not, however, unlimited. No litigant is entitled to more than what is reasonably and necessarily required for the just disposal of a case, within the context of the other demands on court time.

“Whether it is an unrepresented litigant or not, the resources which the courts decide to assign to a case must depend upon the importance of the legal issues involved; the gravity of the wrong allegedly suffered by the moving or counter-claiming party; the monetary sum involved; and the public interest in the outcome of the case. Courts are entitled, and indeed are required, to foster their resources. This is both a matter of public and private interest.

“Court resources used in litigation are funded by public money. In addition, the parties pay for legal representation.

“Litigants should not be faced with cases that are longer or more expensive than they need to be for a fair resolution.

“In many instances, costs, if awarded against a losing party, may not be recovered. In that regard, putting reasonable limits on submissions, in terms of time, and allowing a measured number of hours or days for each side to litigate their case, is both right and appropriate. The calling of repetitive expert evidence may, and should, also be curtailed.”

The case was one of the most extraordinary taken in the High Court by a lay litigant and costs were awarded against Mr Talbot, which were estimated to be somewhere north of €700,000. Since then, there has been little indication that those costs were recovered.

READ MORE: Litigants going it alone because of free legal aid cuts


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