A judge at London’s High Court today stepped in and blocked bailiffs from seizing assets from beleaguered Owen Oyston in the wake of earlier court defeats in the battle over Blackpool FC.
An interim injunction stopping bailiffs seizing assets had already been granted last week.
But it was renewed for the time being by Judge Melissa Clarke.
In announcing her decision Judge Clarke said there were two serious issues which needed to be resolved at a future hearing. The injunction will remain in force until those issues are resolved at another hearing.
One question mark was over whether the writ used by court enforcement agents was valid because of a mistake it contained over the sum of money at stake.
The other was whether the correct interpretation had been made of the rules regarding the use of force to gain entry.
Mr Oyston was not present at the hearing.
However, his barrister gave an undertaking on his behalf that no goods which were present when bailiffs went knocking on March 5 would be removed from his penthouse apartment at the hotel complex attached to Blackpool FC’s stadium, or from his home, Quernmore Park Hall, a country house based in Lancaster.
The court heard that among Mr Oyston’s belongings which he is concerned he could lose forever if they are confiscated now and he then eventually wins this legal dispute include the skeleton of a woolly mammoth and a Lowry painting.
Solicitors, Clifford Chance, acting for Valeri Belokon, who is pursuing enforcement to ensure Mr Oyston covers the £24m court judgement debt, wrote letters to the High Court saying removal vans were seen outside Blackpool FC after the injunction was granted last week “and must have been full of Mr Oyston possessions”.
They added that a valuable Lowry painting and Ferrari and Lamborghini sports cars were not located at Quernmore Park Hall as expected when bailiffs forced their way in last Monday.
But Mr Oyston’s barrister Matthew Collings QC told Judge Melissa Clarke: “We don’t know anything of these lorries after March 5 but in any event I give the undertaking as of March 5. I am instructed these lorries had nothing to do with Mr Oyston.”
He continued: “The house is absolutely stuffed with things - it’s hardly been denuded.”
The QC said if the woolly mammoth skeleton “went west he will never get that back again”.
On March 6 legal representatives for Mr Oyston successfully won an interim injunction which lapsed on Tuesday. Mr Collings applied for it to be continued pending a final ruling on “serious issues”.
He claimed that the “writ of control” was wrong and not valid. It had the wrong date, November 9, instead of November 6, when the judgement debt was ordered, and said the amount to be recovered was £31.27m and not £24m adding that some £10m had been paid off.
He also argued that there was “a serious issue to be tried as to the proper interpretation of the rules” regarding the use of force to gain entry by court enforcement agents.
The court heard that Mr Oyston had refused to co-operate with the High Court agents wanting access to his apartment so a warrant to allow the use of reasonable force was successfully applied for.
Force was not used there but the judge was told that a crow bar was used to get into the country estate.
Because the figure of £32m was wrongly used, that also had the knock-on effect of the percentage fee for the enforcement being put at £2.2m, added Mr Collings.
He said the writ was the foundation for all enforcement action and continued: “There’s a real issue that this writ of control is invalid and should be set aside. And there’s a serious issue to be tried as to the proper interpretation of the rules. From time immemorial a distinction has been drawn between somebody’s home and place of work.
“We are not trying to obstruct the enforcement process.
“We are trying to obstruct unlawful enforcement procedures.”
Mr Collings said: “Mr Oyston is a wealthy man. He is asset rich but cash poor. His overall schedule of assets is £140m. The problem has been realising assets for a reasonable price within a reasonable time.”
The application was resisted by lawyers on behalf of the High Court agent David Asker and the High Court appointed enforcement company SHCE Ltd.
Its barrister Shahram Sharghy submitted that no-one was confused by wording on the writ and it was not invalid.
He argued that the interpretation of the rules in this type of case could not be intended to mean that if access was denied “no force can ever be used”.
He continued: “Mr Oyston claims this enforcement process is part and parcel of a campaign of pressure, whether through the media or otherwise, and that’s not the reason why Mr Asker and High Court enforcement officers have been instructed to pursue this matter. I put that on record.
“Mr Oyston is a man with many business interests, one of which is Blackpool Football Club and also a hotel complex which is part of the stadium.
“If My Oyston had voluntarily allowed access to the apartment there would be no issue, no matter, in terms of entering specified or relevant premises.
“But once it was clear Mr Oyston was not only not willing to co-operate or engage in the enforcement process then it was highly likely that the same conduct would be relating to Quernmore Park Hall as well.”
In renewing the injunction, Judge Clarke said there was a dispute as to the extent the enforcement agents attempted to enter Mr Oyston’s penthouse apartment.
Referring to the actions of the bailiffs she said that although no attempt was made to enter Mr Oyston’s apartment they had gone to his home and gained access “by breaking locks etc.”
Once there they made a list of certain assets found. Mr Oyston was not present but others were.
The judge said she was satisfied the writ of control was “not wrong” in referring to £32m although it referred to the wrong date, but she said it made no mention of the £10m paid by the time the writ was entered on 19 February.
She said that “potentially” was an issue to be tried, not least because a document left at Quernmore Park Hall again mentioned £32m.
“There’s a certain tracking through of the mistake on the face of the writ of control which doesn’t adequately reflect the £10m paid,” she said.
She said she considered that the main issue between the parties about the use of reasonable force clearly involved a dispute about the proper consideration of sections of the rules and that was the basis for the judge last week granting an interim injunction.
“It seems to me there is a real dispute about the meaning of the provisions, which must be determined elsewhere. I am satisfied there is a serious issue to be tried in respect of it because it goes to the entire legality and validity of the entry in this case of the enforcement agents into Quernmore Park Hall,” she said.
If the injunction was not continued to maintain the status quo, Mr Oyston might be unable to retrieve some “irreplaceable items” such as the woolly mammoth and Lowry painting, she added.
“There are a number of expensive and unique assets. It may well be that enforcement will mean those assets go in the long run anyway but if this enforcement activity is unlawful as Mr Oyston says it is the court should not be quick to allow such unique and personal assets to be sold without the possibility of recovery,” she said.
She extended the injunction on the basis of Mr Oyston’s undertaking, given on his behalf by his barrister, until trial or further determination of these proceedings.
She also granted Mr Oyston costs of the two injunction hearings totalling £14,500 plus VAT.
A representative on behalf of Owen Oyston said afterwards: “Following a hearing in the High Court the interim injunction obtained by Mr Oyston last week has now been extended until the final disposal of the action.
“In reaching her decision the learned judge concluded that there was a serious question as to whether the conduct of the High Court Enforcement Officers was unlawful. The injunction will prevent such further unlawful conduct whilst the claim for a final injunction and damages continues to final determination.
“Mr Oyston would like to thank his legal team, Matthew Collings QC and Oliver Phillips of Maitland Chambers.
“No further comment will be made at this time.”