When it is a hearing of course! The recent case of Forcelux v Binnie in the Court of Appeal reviewed the status of initial hearings under part 55 of the Civil Procedure Rules, which govern possession actions. It seems that the first hearing before a Court is not a trial even though a possession order may be awarded and it may be the only hearing.
The key upshot of this is that it is far easier for a tenant to apply to set aside any possession order made at such a hearing where it has been made in his absence. This is because any attempt to set aside a decision made at trial can only be made by application under rule 39.3(3) and this requires that the party seeking for the order to be set aside must show:
1. He acted promptly;
2. He had good reason for his non-attendance; and
3. He has reasonable prospects of success at an re-trial.
This can be hard to do and therefore has the effect of preventing many re-hearings of matters where the defendant was not at the original trial. However, as the first hearing of a matter under CPR 55 is not a trial CPR 39.3(3) does not apply and the Court power to set aside the hearing is provided by CPR 3.1(2)(m). This does not require prompt action or the Defendant to show that they have reasonable prospects of success but merely requires a the Court to be persuaded that justice will not be done without a proper hearing.
In practice, this means that many more Defendants may have the opportunity to apply to the Court to set aside possession orders where they can show that the overriding objective of fairness will be best served by doing so. Agents and landlords should be aware that this may allow unscrupulous tenants to delay possession further and should also be aware that simply proceeding to a hearing without the presence of the tenant may not be the ideal situation that it may first appear to be.