Fixed Costs – the effect of acceptance of a Part 36 offer

The case of Ansell & Evans -v- AT&T (GB) Holdings Ltd (County Court at Oxford 14/12/2017) was an appeal to the County Court in relation to the interpretation and effect of acceptance of a Part 36 offer made in a case to which fixed costs applies.

Further information can be found in Gordon Exall’s blog on this case here

Background

The Claimants had been injured in a car accident and the claim, due to its value, fell within the scope of the RTA protocol (‘the Protocol’). The claims were submitted to the Protocol and the Defendant admitted liability. Subsequently, the Defendant wrote to the Claimants stating that they were concerned that the accident was a low velocity impact and they therefore requested that they have access to the vehicle in order to arrange an inspection “in line with Kearsley -v- Klarfeld…” and that pending such investigations the Defendant “may wish to raise Casey -v- Cartwright”.

Shortly thereafter, the Claimants wrote to the Defendant stating that in light of this request, pursuant to paragraph 7.76 of the Protocol the claim was not suitable for and therefore would no longer continue under the Protocol.

Three months later, the Defendant wrote to the Claimants stating that “LVI is no longer an issue”.

No settlement having been reached, the Claimants issued proceedings under Part 7 and the Defendant thereafter made Part 36 offers, which the Claimant accepted within the relevant period.

The issue between the parties

Following settlement, the Defendant stated that it considered that the Claimants’ conduct in withdrawing the claim from the Portal had been unreasonable, and that the Claimant should be limited to pre-action fixed costs (CPR 45.29B Table 6C).

The Claimants’ position was that:-

  • Pursuant to CPR 36.20 there was no deemed order for costs (CPR 44.9 applies only to settlement under CPR 36.13);
  • CPR 36.20(2) provides that where a Part 36 offer is accepted within the relevant period the Claimant is entitled to fixed costs applicable at the date on which the notice of acceptance was served;
  • The court had no discretion to go behind the self-contained provisions of CPR 36 and make some other order as the court;
  • Even if the court did have such a discretion, the court should not do so because if the Defendant had wished to raise issues of reasonableness it should not have made an offer pursuant to CPR 36; and
  • It is incumbent on a defendant to ‘say what it means’ when making offers. The consequences of CPR 36.20 are designed to give certainty in the event that the claim is settled. The consequences of the Defendant’s offer should therefore have been construed contra preferentem in favour of the Claimants.

The Claimants also alleged that, in the alternative,  it had not been unreasonable to withdraw the claim from the Portal in light of the Defendant’s statement that it “had LVI concerns”

The Decision

At first instance, the Court dismissed the Claimants’ application on the basis that it had been unreasonable to withdraw the claim from the Portal. However, the judge did not give any reasons for dismissing the Claimants’ argument that by operation of CPR 36.20 costs payable by the Defendant were fixed to the sums set out in Table 6B for the stage at which the claim settled and that therefore the Court did not have discretion to make an order in a different amount. The judge at first instance refused permission to appeal.

The Claimants made an application for permission to appeal on the grounds that (1) the judge had failed to give reasons for their judgment, (2) that the judge was wrong in law to reject the Claimants’ argument that by operation of CPR 36.20 costs payable by the Defendant were fixed at those set out in Table 6B, and (3) that the judge was wrong in law to conclude that the Claimants’ had acted unreasonably by withdrawing the claim from the Portal.

At the appeal hearing the Court allowed the appeal on the first ground, but dismissed the second and third grounds.

The First ground was a simple question of fact. As to the third, the court held that the letter sent by the Defendant that it “had LVI concerns” was merely an indication that complex issues might be raised, but was not of itself sufficient to give rise to complexity sufficient to justify withdrawal from the Portal.

However, had the Claimants succeeded on the second ground, the reasonableness or otherwise of the Claimants’ conduct would have been irrelevant. Thus it was upon the second ground that the Claimants’ case hinged and therefore the reasons for dismissal require more detailed analysis.

In respect of the second ground, which was that CPR 36.20 provides that where a Part 36 offer is accepted within the relevant period a claimant is entitled to the costs applicable for the stage at which the claim settlement, the judge held that CPR 36.20(1) incorporates CPR 45.29A(1), which therefore incorporates CPR 45.29A(3) which incorporates CPR 45.24 (consequences of failure to comply or electing not to continue with the relevant pre-action protocol). Simply put, the judge found that where a case settles by CPR 36, the court has discretion to award a different amount to that provided for under CPR 36.20 and Table 6C if the court determines that the claimant acted unreasonably.

Analysis

CPR 36.20(2) provides that where a Part 36 offer is accepted within the relevant period, the claimant is entitled to the fixed costs in Table 6C of Section IIIA of Part 45 for the stage applicable at the date on which notice of acceptance was served on the offeror.

There is no provision within CPR 36.20 which is relevant to these facts. In particular, there is no provision which states that CPR 45 generally shall apply where a Part 36 offer is accepted within the relevant period or which provides for any discretion for the court to award any other amount.

CPR 36.20(1), states “This rule applies where (a) a claim no longer continues under the RTA or EL/PL Protocol pursuant to rule 45.29A(1)”.

So far as it is relevant CPR 45.29A(1) provides that “subject to paragraph (3), this section applies (a) to a claim started under (i) the Pre-Action Protocol for Low Value Personal Injury Claims in Road Traffic Accidents (‘the RTA Protocol’)… where such a claim no longer continue under the relevant Protocol or the Stage 3 Procedure in Practice Direction 8B”

CPR 45.29A(3) provides that “nothing in this section shall prevent the Court making an order under rule 45.24.”

The judge found that because CPR 45.29A(1) states that it is “subject to” CPR 45.29A(3), where the court considered that withdrawal from the portal was unreasonable under CPR 45.24, by virtue of CPR 45.29A(3) the claim had not “continued under the RTA Protocol” for the purpose of CPR 36.20(1). Accordingly, the Court was not bound to allow only those costs within Table 6C.

Alternative View

It is possible to argue that the judge on appeal erred in their finding as set out above.

In this case, it was a simple matter of fact that the claim had not continued under the Protocol under CPR 45.29A(1). CPR 45.29A(3) states that “nothing in this section” shall prevent the court from making an order under CPR 45.24. However, it does not state that a finding under CPR 45.24 that the claim had left the portal unreasonably would mean that section CPR 45.29A(1) did not apply. Furthermore as is clear, CPR 36.20 is not “in this section” (i.e. within CPR 45.29A) and therefore CPR 45.29A(3) is specifically dis-applied.

Summary

Claimants should careful to ensure that they do not withdraw a claim from the portal unless the defendant has actually raised a complex issue. Parties should be sure to clarify with their opponent whether there are any issues of conduct prior to the issue of proceedings and in any event before any offer of settlement is made or accepted. It is a common tactic for defendants in particular to only raise issues such as this after settlement has been agreed, as was indeed the position in this case. Written correspondence on the point prior to the acceptance of an offer should at the least give rise to an argument in estoppel should they later try to raise conduct.

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