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On titles used in case titles

How should the title of a case refer to one of the parties? This is a fairly recondite issue, which came up only as a post-script in HHJ Paul Matthews's decision on two applications in a case whose (as we shall see, disputed) title was Crytpo Open Patent Group v Craig Steven Wright [2021] EWHC 3440 (Ch). (I am indebted to Mr G Exall, of the Civil Litigation Brief, for alerting me to this case)

The facts in the ongoing case are rather high profile. Craig Wright has for some years publicly claimed to be Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous creator of the Bitcoin cryptographic currency. The claimants, a group of interested parties in the realm of cryptographic currency, find Wright's assertion problematic, because it would indicate that the White Paper upon which Bitcoin is based is under copyright owned by Mr Wright. The claimants thus were seeking declaratory relief asserting that Wright is not Mr Nakamoto.

However, the only relevant fact for these purposes is that Craig Steven Wright asserts that he has two doctorates: a PhD in Computer Science and Economics from Charles Sturt University in Australia, and ThD in theology from United Theological College (also in Australia). (If these claims are correct, then in Germany, Wright would be referred to as Herr Dr. Dr., and in England, be entitled to circumvent the normal shibboleths about not combining honorifics and post-nominals by quite correctly referring to himself as Dr Wright PhD) Wright has posted evidence of the former degree on his website, but not the latter; in 2016, the scrupulous Financial Times merely stated that Wright claims to hold a theology PhD and made references to his credentials as self-cited, rather than asserting it as fact. This publication has not engaged in any independent effort to verify this degree, and there is no suggestion that Wright has engaged in any deceptive or misleading conduct with regards to his academic record.

It was these academic titles which caused a late issue in the case, as neatly and concisely summed up by HHJ Mathews in a postscript, which I quote in full:


78    In the suggestions for correction sent to me after I circulated my draft judgment, the defendant's team told me that the defendant requested that the title of my judgment be amended so that the defendant's name include his university degree of doctor. They referred me to cpr, pd 16, paragraph 2.6(a), which states that the claim form must include the full name of each party. This is defined to mean, in the case of an individual, his full unabbreviated name and title by which he is known.

79    In fact, the claim form sued the defendant using his full names, but not the degree of doctor. I note that each statement of case from the claimant's side thereafter has omitted any reference to the claimant's university doctorate, whereas each statement of case from the defendant's side has included it. For what it may be worth, however, my view is that paragraph 2.6(a) of pd 16 in referring to title means social title, and not any other style, office or rank, such as professional, military or academic.

80    Be that as it may, the claim was begun against the defendant under his full names, no application has ever been made to the court to alter the intitulement of the action, no argument has taken place on the point, and no authorities have been referred to. The point has been sprung on the court at the last minute. Dr Wright is justly proud of his academic achievement, but I do not think the court should be dealing with this minor dispute at this very late stage and on such an inadequate basis. I mean no disrespect to Dr Wright by not doing so.

For the reasons I will set out infra, I respectfully disagree with HHJ Matthews on the interpretation of pd 16's mandatory rule, quoted supra. I rest my conclusion on a careful and intense analysis of the text of the provision as directed by our judicial forebears.  However, it goes with out saying I agree with His Honour's conclusions regarding raising, at the last minute and without proper authority or argument, matters related to title long after intitulement (a lovely word) has occurred.

First, let us consider the syntax of full and unabbreviated. The drafter of the Direction used two words here to emphasise that, certainly with regards to names, they want nothing held back. However, does full and unabbreviated extend as an adjective to title? It would appear not, inasmuch as the succeeding provision (2.6(b)) uses clarifying commas to indicate that, in fact, the relevant phrase here is title by which he is known. As we would expect there to be a relatively common meaning between this terms throughout the subprovisions in 2.6, it seems reasonable to accept that this simple phrase applies to our purposes as well.

How, then, to interpret title by which he is known? HHJ Matthews arrived at the conclusion that this refers only to social title rather than academic degrees. However, no authority was cited for this point (and I could find none for or against it), and neither is it clear what precisely social title would entail. As my copy of Debrett's Correct Form provided no authority for the definition of social title, it cannot be said to be a term with a firm locus classicus. A knighthood, the dignity of Queen's Counsel, the title of Reverend, and the honorific Mr could all, in a reasonable interpretation, but it is very unclear to me what distinctions would have kept away Wright's titles. A theological doctorate (be it Wright's alleged ThD, Doctor of Divinity, or a Lambeth degree) is of a kind with Reverend, while the academic rank of doctor seems of a kind with that of a QC in the law. Most of all, Mr and Revd are very much of a kind with Dr. One can understand HHJ Matthews's desire to prevent excessively proud litigants appending the most absurd pseudo-academic titles to their name (think of Red Dwarf's Arnold J Rimmer turning his swimming certificates into the post-nominals ssc bsc). Yet, inventing a distinction between social title and academic title seems artificial, not least when most forms of titular honour in this country are ultimately, however circuitously, all grants of the Sovereign as fons honorum.

Therefore, with the greatest of respect, I must depart from HHJ Matthews's dichotomy, and instead return to the plain language of the judicial enactment, viz by which he is known. This phrase, occurring immediately following the requirement of naming the party, suggests that the distinguishing factor is whether or not one element in a universe of a given person's possible legitimate titles is that which would be used to refer to that person. This, naturally, must be understood in the extremely formal context of written proceedings in the High Court of Justice; we are not looking to the titles (unlikely to be any) someone's co-workers or friends might use in formal conversation. Instead, we are asking for someone's titles as they might appear in a formal scholarly article, Letters Patent, an obituary in a reputable newspaper. This solves the frivolity problem rather neatly; for example, the degree of Bachelor of Arts is estimable (your correspondent has two), but it does not produce a corresponding title by which one is known in English society. This assertion is made notwithstanding the exceptional cases where one does append first degrees, such as an academic cv, in a starred footnote in a law-review article, or in procedings minuted in formal ancient university records (see the Oxford Calendar Style Guide. These, plainly, are specialised scenarios.

We could continue this process for every other type of title (Chartered Surveyor, for example), but in the end, this is all somewhat circular reasoning, for the question of boundaries (other than the elimination of frivolous or colloquial titles), remains rather vague (just as vague as HHJ Matthews's idea of social title. Your correspondent could fill this article with guesses, but we are here expounding a practical legal matter, and in practical law, we do not reason from first principles. The reason we do not do this is because judges are not terribly fond of skeletons which read like treatises on the philosophy of language. We require Authority to guide us.

First, we might derive authority from both custom and the language of the enactment. The common practice appears to be to omit Mr (or analagous honorific) before names in full case titles in the judgment or report, leaving just the full name.(Readers of this publication will recall previous discussion on omitting such honorifics from convicted defendants in court address). However, it is equally the common practice of litigants filing cases to include these honorifics, perhaps out of a spirit of more anxious compliance with PD 22. When Members of Parliament are party to actions, the case title typically gives them the style to which they are entitled (see, eg, the full title of Corbyn v Evans [2021] EWHC 130 (QB)). Similarly, orders in the honours system are included in full case titles, even where social honorifics are excluded; see, eg, the full title listed for Mastercard & Ors v Merricks [2020] UKSC 51 (which includes the respondent's CBE).

This all again leaves us with ambiguity, but the ultimate source of authority must be through the actions and practices of judges, whose conduct is a persuasive authority of upright and moral practice for the whole of the legal community. We learn from the wisdom of their ways, and thus model our conduct in pleadings on those in whom Her Majesty has invested the awesome responsibility of dispensing (and being) the Queen's Justice. We must, therefore, look to how judges style themselves in England and Wales.

This task is difficult, because the judiciary are, very regrettably, not terribly consistent in this regard. The methodological answer to this inconsistency must by necessity mean following the strictest, most formal judges' practice, on the logical basis that it may be appropriate for a judge, as an act of modesty, to adopt a lesser style (which would not be appropriate for mere litigants to use), but it would be tantamount to scandalising the court to ever suggest that a judge using a fuller style is displaying arrogance or adding unneccessary pomp. We must, then, pattern our rules on the fullest styling. This is seen, to pick a recent case, in the (not at all unusual) styling used by the presiding judge in Axogen Corp v Aviv Scientific Ltd [2022] EWHC 95 (Ch):

The Honourable Mrs Justice Joanna Smith DBE

Note the plethora of titles added to the minimum. We could, for instance, dispense with the Mrs before Justice (as many jurisdictions have done), but the practice in England mandates it be added, because the full glory of the title of Justice does not preclude the inclusion of the basic dignity of the honorific which gender and marital status give her Ladyship. We also see, interestingly, the decision taken here (as it is by some female High Court judges and Lady Justices of Appeal) to make use of the damehood in the post-nominal letters. (In theory, a male judge might append Kt to his name as well, but your correspondent has never seen this done) This is a pleonastic practice, inasmuch as it is well-known that every woman who is a High Court judge holds the rank of DBE. It is not an additional achievement or bonus honour to presiding as a judge, and the judge displayed no additional merit above that required to be appointed High Court judge to earn the gong. Yet, Her Ladyship has included it, suggesting that in giving the full title by which a judge is known, we ought to go beyond that which is merely necessary to identify, and include all the stars in the splendid constellation of achievement, however seemingly irrelevant. (On this view, there is some merit in appending Kt for male judges) Most revealingly of all, Her Ladyship included the prefix The Honourable to her name. It is well-known that there is essentially no authority for this style, which is most likely just a bit of silly judicial pomp (much like the equally un-supported style of the Honourable for the Inns of Court). It is also a style that adds little to the authority of the judiciary, given that it is essentially never spoken aloud in court (My Lady is more pleasing than Your Honour anyway), and, if anything, creates confusion with the lower rank of judges who append Her Honour to their names. Many judges indeed omit this. Yet, in the maximal style (which, as noted supra, we are bound to follow lest we insult the judiciary), it is included. Thus, even frippery in titles, where it can be said to technically augment the popmpousness of a party, is required.

Therefore, on this close analysis, I come to the conclusion adumbrated earlier: doctorates ought to be included in titles in cases. The earned merit of Dr may seem a small addition, but it is no more irrelevant than the Honourable (which is not a title deriving from the fons honorum in the case of judges). It reflects merit and distinction, and is unquestionably a title. People are known by it. This basic information combined with the fact that our judicial exemplars believe that even seemingly irrelevant or unnecessary titles (which many people would consider both a PhD and a DBE to be alike) are worth including, leads inevitably to the fact that a close and devoted follower of the Practice Directions (as I hope we all endeavour to be) should include it in pleadings.