What is Abuse of Process?
Abuse of process refers to the improper or malicious use of legal proceedings for purposes other than the pursuit of justice. It occurs when a party misuses the legal system to achieve an ulterior motive, typically to harass, intimidate, or gain an unfair advantage over another party.
In legal terms, abuse of process is a common law tort or civil wrong that can be the basis for a lawsuit. The key element in an abuse of process claim is the improper use or perversion of the legal process itself, rather than the merits of the underlying legal dispute. It involves a deliberate act or misuse of procedural rules, court orders, or legal mechanisms.
Some examples of abuse of process may include:
- Malicious Prosecution: Instituting legal proceedings without probable cause, with malicious intent, and without a reasonable expectation of success.
- Extortionate Litigation: Filing repetitive or frivolous lawsuits solely to exert pressure on the opposing party or to force a settlement.
- Delaying Tactics: Engaging in deliberate tactics, such as unnecessary motions, appeals, or other procedural maneuvers, to prolong litigation and burden the opposing party.
- Improper Service of Process: Manipulating or falsely executing the service of legal documents to deceive or intimidate the other party.
- Misusing Court Orders: Obtaining court orders through fraud or misrepresentation, or using them for purposes other than their intended effect.
- Vexatious Litigation: Initiating numerous legal actions without legitimate grounds or legitimate interest in the outcome, causing unnecessary expense and burden to the opposing party.
It’s important to note that the specific elements and definitions of abuse of process may vary depending on the jurisdiction. Laws and legal standards can differ from one country or state to another. If you believe you have been a victim of abuse of process, it is advisable to consult with a qualified attorney who can provide guidance based on the applicable laws in your jurisdiction.
How, Where, and When to Submit a Complaint?
Generally, the regulations that govern the filing of complaints for abuse of process can vary depending on the jurisdiction and legal system in which the complaint is being filed. Some common regulatory bodies and legal mechanisms that may be involved include:
- Judicial Conduct Boards: In many jurisdictions, there are bodies or committees responsible for overseeing the conduct of judges and judicial officers. These boards typically handle complaints related to judicial misconduct, which may include allegations of abuse of process by judges.
- Bar Associations and Disciplinary Committees: Bar associations and disciplinary committees regulate the conduct of attorneys and lawyers. They may have established procedures for filing complaints against attorneys who engage in abuse of process.
- Court Rules and Procedures: Each court system has its own set of rules and procedures that govern the filing of complaints and the conduct of litigation. These rules may outline specific requirements for raising allegations of abuse of process within the context of ongoing litigation.
- Civil Litigation Laws: Civil litigation laws in your jurisdiction may contain provisions or remedies for addressing abuse of process claims. These laws could specify the elements of the claim, the burden of proof, and the available remedies.
- Legal Ethics Codes: Legal ethics codes and rules of professional conduct prescribe the ethical standards that lawyers must adhere to. These codes often include provisions that prohibit attorneys from engaging in abusive or improper use of the legal process.
It is important to consult the specific regulations and legal framework applicable to your jurisdiction.
An attorney who specializes in the relevant area of law can provide guidance on the specific regulations that govern the filing of complaints for abuse of process in your jurisdiction and help you navigate the process effectively.
This type of case is not common in South Africa. However, in a recent high-profile case, Zuma vs Adv Billy Downer and Journalist Karyn Maughan, the defense won their case pleading abuse of process and asking to set the case aside.
The following key arguments were used:
“In general terms, an abuse of process takes place when the procedure permitted by the rules of court to facilitate the pursuit of the truth, is used for a purpose extraneous to that objective. That it is a vexatious and abusive process to Institute proceedings that are obviously unsustainable as a certainty, and not merely on a balance of probability. The result is that the prosecution’s issuing of the Summens must be set aside.”
“The taking out of the summons would clearly be an abuse of the process of the court in that it had been undertaken not with the object of having Justice Done to a wrongdoer, but in order to enable the prosecutor to harass the accused or fraudulently to defeat his rights.”
“The process of the Court provided for a particular purpose, would be used not for that purpose, but for the achievement of a totally different object, for the oppression of an adversary, the court has an inherent part to prevent abuse of its process by frivolous or vexatious proceedings”