Proportionality – a common sense decision from Master Rowley

In the case of BNM v MGN Limited [2016] EWHC B13 (costs) the Senior Costs Judge applied the new test of proportionality to post Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) additional liabilities. The claim was for defamation and therefore the additional liabilities (despite being incurred post 1 April 2013) were recoverable inter partes (additional liabilities for defamation and mesothelioma cases remain recoverable inter partes post LASPO).

In BNM the Senior Costs Judge based his decision on the fact that pursuant to CPR 44.3(7) the old test of proportionality was not preserved for additional liabilities incurred post 1 April 2013. The key paragraphs from BNM on this point are as follows:

28 – It seems to me that the intention was that the rules as to the recoverability of additional liabilities would be preserved in relation to those additional liabilities which remain recoverable after 1 April 2013. However, the old test of proportionality was not preserved in relation to those additional liabilities. Had that been intended it could have been achieved quite easily by a further exception in CPR 44.3(7).

31 – A consequence of the reduction of the base costs to a proportionate figure will be that the success fee, a percentage of those base costs, also reduces. It would be absurd and unworkable to apply the new test of proportionality to the base costs, but the old test of proportionality to the success fee.

32 – Ring fencing and excluding additional liabilities from the new test of proportionality would be a significant hindrance on the court’s ability to comply with its obligation under CPR 44.3(2)(a) to allow only those costs which are proportionate.

In the case of King v Basildon & Thurrock University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust [2016] EWHC B32 (Costs) Master Rowley reached a difference conclusion, albeit the additional liabilities in this care were incurred pre 1 April 2013 i.e. pre LASPO. Master Rowley’s decision was primarily based on the definition of costs in the CPR post 1 April 2013. The useful paragraphs of Master Rowley’s judgment to consider are as follows:

23 – The key phrase in the new proportionality test in 44.3 (5) states that “costs incurred are proportionate if they bear a reasonable relationship to ….”. The word “costs” as now defined refers to profit costs and disbursements but does not include additional liabilities. Given that the proportionality test in 44.3 (5) only applies to work carried out since that definition of costs has come into being, the obvious interpretation is that it only relates to the base costs of a CFA. It is not clear to me why additional liabilities should necessarily be caught by a test which is based on a definition recast specifically to exclude such liabilities.

24 – In my view, treating the word “costs” as only referring to base costs fits in with the provisions of Part 3 in relation to costs budgeting which were also brought into the CPR in April 2013. For example, in rule 3.15 the court “may manage costs to be incurred by any party in any proceedings” and in doing so will make a costs management order. Such an order will record the extent to which budgets are agreed between the parties and, to the extent they are not agreed, will record the court’s approval after making appropriate revisions. “The court will thereafter control the parties’ budgets in respect of recoverable costs”. Precedent H, which sets out the costs to be managed, expressly excludes any additional liabilities that may still be recoverable between the parties. Consequently, the only interpretation of the recoverable costs which the costs management order is controlling, is that they are the base costs of a CFA as set out in the Precedent H. The court is required to set a budget which is specifically described as allowing reasonable and proportionate costs notwithstanding that it excludes additional liabilities.

25 – In my judgment, being consistent with the costs management arrangements and avoiding bizarre outcomes in bills which involve both proportionality tests, point towards the rules being interpreted as continuing to require the court to assess the base costs and additional liabilities separately.

 26 – Furthermore, the purpose of the Jackson reforms in initiating a sea change could have resulted in Parliament disallowing the recoverability of success fee and ATE premiums from 1 April 2013. But it did not do so and has allowed for the run-off of recoverable success fees and premiums in the main and the continued recoverability of success fees or premiums in particular instances. It seems to me that the fact that additional liabilities are still allowed for by the provisions of CPR rule 48.1 simply means that they remain in existence. It does not mean that they have to be assessed in the aggregate with the base fees using a test which has no recognition of additional liabilities. This is particularly so when aggregation will render those additional liabilities effectively irrecoverable in practice”.

The approach of Master Rowley has recently been followed by Master Brown in the case of Murrells, Estate of v Cambridge University NHS Foundation Trust [2017] EWHC B2 (Costs).

The following are useful extracts from the Judgment:

33(7) – …It seems likely that they will have entered into such arrangements in the reasonable expectation that the additional liabilities would continue to be recoverable as they were pre-LASPO. To apply the new test to additional liabilities in the way contended for would, however, require many litigants to submit to a substantial, if not complete, disallowance of their additional liabilities as against the other party or parties to the litigation, while at the same time the liability to pay an insurer or the lawyers the additional liability would be preserved. If that were right, it would inevitably lead to many litigants, including – it might be observed – victims of mesothelioma, having to give up deserving claims or defences. I agree with Master Rowley: in these circumstances, the defendant’s contention cannot be reconciled with transitional provisions and the clear will of Parliament. The intention must have been to provide, at the very least, an orderly retreat from the old funding scheme.

34 – In the circumstances, I respectfully disagree with the decision of Master Gordon-Saker in BNM as to the application of the new proportionality test to additional liabilities and therefore also as to the need to aggregate base costs with additional liabilities.

The case of BNM is currently on its way to the Court of Appeal, with a hearing date expected for October 2017. Hopefully, this will bring some clarity to the position, but until then expect lots of costs litigation over the point. Hopefully, the Court of Appeal will not simply address the additional liabilities in BNM, but also address the position of pre-LASPO additional liabilities in the context of the King case.

Personally, I think the position adopted by the Senior Costs Judge represents a drafting error in relation to CPR 44.3(7). The intention of LASPO in my view was very clear:

  1. Additional liability incepted pre 1 April 2013 = recoverable inter partes and not subject to the new test of proportionality
  2. Additional liability incepted post 1 April 2013 = not recoverable inter partes
  3. Additional liability (defamation and mesothelioma cases) incepted post 1 April 2013 = recoverable inter partes and not subject to new test of proportionality

Surely, it was never the intention for additional liabilities at 1 and 3 above to be recoverable only for them to be crippled by the new test of proportionality (resulting in a non-recovery)?  Surely, it was never the intention to specifically ‘carve out’ defamation and mesothelioma claims only for the additional liabilities to then be squashed on detailed assessment due to the new test of proportionality? This is particularly relevant in defamation cases where costs can easily dwarf damages.

What all this does show is the problems that can be caused when even minor changes are made to the CPR. I say this in the context of a significant extension of fixed costs on the horizon. There are fixed costs disputes every day at the moment in relation to portal cases and fast track injury cases where the numbers in dispute are very small. Where the numbers in dispute are large i.e. in multi-track fixed costs cases then this will undoubtedly cause satellite litigation, for example arguments about location, what stage the case settled and disbursements.

LJ Jackson thinks that fixed costs will bring certainly, but if Defendants (paying parties) are prepared to exploit a ‘gap in the rules’ as highlighted in the BNM case then expect Costs War 2 post implementation of fixed fees! The Courts are going to be busier than ever, which would be contrary to what LJ Jackson and the governments wants.

LJ Jackson maybe about to score an ‘own goal’ with his planned extension of fixed fees……

This Blog was prepared by Andrew McAulay, who is a Partner and the Head of the Costs and Litigation Funding Team at Clarion. He can be contacted on andrew.mcaulay@clarionsolicitors.com or on 0113 336 3334.

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