Vexatious litigants – or “suing other people for fun and profit”

Every lawyer has encountered them. Every large organisation has encountered them. Some most unfortunate private people live next door to one, and are never allowed to forget it. Whilst most people aim to live their lives with as little unnecessary conflict as possible, a few people thrive on it, and for some the legal system is their favourite tool for stirring up, maintaining and exacerbating endless battles with whomever has the misfortune to cross their path. They are the ones referred to in legal circles as “vexatious litigants”.

The vexatious litigant generally ends up representing him or herself. This is after s/he has thoroughly annoyed and antagonised numerous private attorneys, legal aid attorneys, law clinic attorneys and NGO staffers. Having spent considerable time in the company of lawyers, they tend to consider themselves honorary legal professionals, and liberally (and inappropriately) sprinkle their self-composed, many-hundred-paged legal documents with legal jargon.

The vexatious litigant tends to sue all possible parties on all possible causes of action, no matter how improbable. It is not uncommon for the last magistrate to refuse their request to be joined in the next legal action, and for him or her to be joined in turn by the Chief Justice, the President and the Public Protector. In one matter observed by the writer, the Queen of England herself did not escape the litigant’s wide net.

Unfortunately for the victims of vexatious litigants, one cannot often afford to simply laugh off a summons, and even the most outrageous allegations must be considered and responded to in accordance with the rules of court.

The victims are not without recourse however. The Vexatious Proceedings Act passed in 1956 empowers a High Court to grant an order barring a vexatious litigant from initiating any legal proceedings without the leave of a court. The vexatious litigant must persuade the court that there are reasonable grounds for the proposed litigation, before any court papers are issued or served. If the vexatious litigant ignores that order, s/he is in contempt of court and can be imprisoned and/or fined.

The actual or likely victim is required to approach the High Court to secure such an order, and must show the court that the vexatious litigant has a history of persistently instituting legal actions without reasonable grounds. Whilst a successful victim may well secure a costs order against the vexatious litigant, if the litigant is a “person of straw” with no assets or funds, then the victim must bear the high costs of High Court litigation him or herself.