Bristol Rovers' hard fought six-day trial against Sainsbury's concluded today in the Royal Courts of Justice.The Club was forced to take its claim that Sainsbury's is contractually committed to buy the Memorial Stadium to the High Court when the supermarket chain refused to complete the purchase and sought to terminate the contract.
This was despite the Club having obtained planning permission in December 2014 for the extended delivery hours to the new supermarket, which met Sainsbury's requirements.
The case was heard in the Royal Courts of Justice by Mrs Justice Proudman. During the trial, a number of witnesses for Sainsbury's confirmed that it had concluded as much as three years ago that the project would not meet the supermarket chain's financial targets. It was put to them that as a result Sainsbury's had been looking for a way out of the deal for some time.
The club was unaware of this until early 2014.
The Club's case has always been that Sainsbury's subsequent refusal to co-operate in its steps to challenge the original planning permission for the store was, as stated by its barrister David Matthias QC, a "continuing and flagrant breach" of its obligations under the contract to use all reasonable endeavours to obtain an acceptable planning permission. Bristol Rovers also considers that Sainsbury's has breached its obligations to act in good faith towards the Club and its obligations under the contract.
This was further expressed by Mr Matthias QC, who said “the justified expectations of Bristol Rovers were that Sainsbury’s would comply with its obligation to use all reasonable endeavours to procure an Acceptable Store Planning Permission, and would be honest and straightforward with it at all stages, and unfortunately they weren’t”.
The Club has now made its case in court and brought its frustrations about Sainsbury's actions over the last few years into the public domain. The Judge made it clear at the beginning of the trial that she would not make an immediate decision on what she described as an "extremely complex case". She has instead reserved judgment until a later date.
The Club is however hopeful that judgment in its favour will be made soon, allowing it to draw a line under this dispute and move forward with the construction of the new UWE Stadium and planning for next season in League 2.
No further statement will be released by the Club until such time as we receive judgment.
On Friday afternoon Mrs Justice Proudman told the High Court that she realised the urgency of the case and would 'work through the court vacation' to conclude the case.
Thanking lawyers for both sides for their 'comprehensive' arguments, she said: "This is not an easy case.
"I will have to work over the vacation and deliver my judgment in the next court term."
The judge had earlier heard the final arguments from both the club's lawyers and those representing Sainsbury’s.
David Matthias QC, for Bristol Rovers, told the judge that, after Bristol City Council refused to change Sainsbury's delivery hours in January last year, the firm 'pulled down the hatches’.
He said that, having decided nothing more would be done to try to get the hours they wanted, they handed the matter over to their solictors who, he claimed, 'frustrated' progress.
He added: "They did what was, from Sainsbury's point of view, an admirable job of ensuring that no progress was made, that every effort by Bristol Rovers to achieve progress was stymied and the clock was run down - that is, in a nutshell, what happened.
"The reality was that, for all they said that they were using all reasonable endeavours to secure an acceptable store planning permission, they were doing quite the opposite.
"They were using all reasonable endeavours to ensure that an acceptable store planning permission did not materialise."
Mr Matthias also reminded the judge of his argument that, long before the failed application to the council, Sainsbury's had concerns about the financial outlook for the proposed store and 'wanted an exit route if there was one’.
He said that the application to vary delivery times was 'done on a shoestring', adding: "There were clear indications from friendly councillors and council officers that this was an application that was bound to fail.
"Officers expressed concerns about some of the technical information, but over and above that it was being made at the wrong time, and Sainsbury’s knew it was being made at the wrong time."
The barrister said Sainsbury's 'didn't say a word' to Bristol Rovers about these concerns and that the evidence suggested they weren't using ‘all reasonable endeavours' - as he claims the contract required them to do - to get the hours they wanted.
He added: "In our respectful submission, the evidence clearly indicates that they weren't using reasonable endeavours and they wanted it to fail
"They were acting in bad faith because they were bringing about a state of affairs that was designed to frustrate the purpose of the contract and to deprive Bristol Rovers of the benefits of the contract."
Mark Wonnacott QC, for Sainsbury's told the judge there was no obligation in the agreement with Rovers to 'make reasonable endeavours' beyond the initial planning application.
He said that, after they had challenged the restrictions on delivery times once, and failed, they were then entitled to terminate the contract.
The barrister added: "It is, frankly, ridiculous to suggest that Sainsbury’s should have known that all they had to do after the refusal was put in another assessment with a few more fences and the application would be granted."