Disproportionate Costs in the Court of Protection

In the case of Hounslow v A Father & Mother (Costs in the Court of Protection – Disproportionate litigation) [2018] EWCOP 23, Judge Eldergill looked at the effects of deviating away from the simple issue at hand and the way that costs can spiral when disproportionate and unnecessary work is undertaken. It also looked at the costs consequences and the unfairness that can be encountered by a Litigant in Person.

The proceedings were in relation to a young man. The Applicant was the London Borough of Hounslow and the Respondents, were the young man’s parents.  The young man resided with his father and suffered from a severe learning disability, which rendered him unable to manage his own property and financial affairs. The financial assets were modest, and the young man received a number of benefits. At the time that the proceedings were issued, the father was the Department of Work and Pensions appointee and the mother assisted with the administration of his state benefits.

In this case, the local authority considered that a Deputyship would be more appropriate due to financial safeguarding concerns, obtained by an anonymous informant.  On 6 February 2017, the Court issued an application filed by the local authority, which asked the Court to appoint the Director of Children’s and Adult Social Services as the Deputy.

On 1 March 2017, the father filed an acknowledgement of service, opposing the application. The father stated that the local authority had failed to provide him with a copy of the application saying it was ‘confidential’. It was also stated that the local authority had not provided any more details or evidence in support of the application.

A Dispute Resolution Hearing had been listed for 2 May 2017, following which no resolution was reached. Judge Hilder listed a number of comprehensive directions in relation to the filing of evidence, position statements and the trial. The matter then came before Judge Eldergill and he stated the following;

1) A case involving the alleged misuse of state benefits has generated an enormous amount of documentation, and no doubt legal costs, quite disproportionate to the simple central issue of an alleged misuse of benefits.

2) The position statements and correspondence are full of generalised assertions of abuse of process, applications being misconceived, summary judgment, etc, which no doubt partly explains why so much paper has been generated.

3) Both legally-represented parties have made basic procedural errors (filing lengthy documents electronically despite what the rules say, including references to discussions at a DRH, filing bundles that are immediately to be returned, not serving the application within the required time limits).

I make these points because of the very clear costs implications.

He then made a further order on 13 November 2017, setting out concerns and the following directions:

UPON

(1)  Considering bundles and other filed documentation concerning this application of in excess of one thousand pages.

WHEREAS

(1)  The local authority has applied to be appointed as the deputy for property and financial affairs of [the son] who is a gentleman in receipt of social security benefits that are managed under a DWP appointeeship held by the First Respondent.

(2)  The outcome of the application will be either that the First Respondent continues to act as [his son’s] appointee (if the application is dismissed) or that the local authority is appointed as [his son’s] deputy, in which case the local authority automatically becomes his appointee.

(3)  The overriding objective of the rules is to enable the court to deal with a case justly. This includes ensuring that it is dealt with expeditiously, in ways which are proportionate to the nature, importance and complexity of the issues, saving expense, and allotting to it an appropriate share of the court’s resources. The parties are required to help the court to further the overriding objective.

(4) Unfortunately, an application concerning the management of [the son’s] benefits has generated over one thousand pages of documents and a huge amount of professional time, expenditure and legal costs quite disproportionate to a simple central issue of alleged misuse of benefits. While the court acknowledges that some of the documentation and expense was required of the parties as a result of the court’s case management directions of 2 May 2017, the amount of documentation filed has nevertheless been contrary to the overriding objective.

(5) Furthermore, and notwithstanding any submissions to the contrary:

(a) The position statements and correspondence are full of generalised assertions of abuse of process, applications being misconceived, summary judgment, etc, which no doubt partly explains why so much paper has been generated.

(b) Both legally-represented parties have made basic procedural errors (filing lengthy documents electronically despite what the rules say, including references to discussions at a DRH, filing bundles that are immediately to be returned, not serving the application within the required time limits, referring inappropriately to public interest immunity, etc).

(6) The parties will be aware that such considerations and observations have clear implications in terms of the recovery of the legal costs generated by these proceedings.

(7) On the documentary evidence filed to date, the court makes the following provisional observations in order to assist the parties:

(a)  The safeguarding investigation was fundamentally flawed and unfair.

(b) The financial information filed to date suggests that there was a lack of prudent good housekeeping under the previous arrangements in force until February 2017 in relation to the way in which benefits were used for [the son’s] benefit.

(c)  The position statement dated 27 September 2017 filed on behalf of the First Respondent is in quite general terms, in particular the financial tables at (internal) pp.10-12.

(d)  A hearing in the Court of Protection regarding the redaction of the identity of the informant would be disproportionately costly. Whether the initial report was malicious or not, and whoever the informant was, it is for the local authority to establish on evidence that there has been mismanagement or misuse by the Second Respondent of [her son’s] funds, that such mismanagement or misuse means that the First Respondent (sic) cannot remain as [his son’s] appointee, and furthermore that it justifies a deputyship order in favour of the local authority.

(e) To date, and despite a prolonged safeguarding investigation, the local authority has not established that the Second Respondent has used [the son’s] funds for her own benefit or that the First Respondent is an inappropriate appointee. If the local authority cannot prove that then it follows that the informant was an unreliable informant.

(f)  In relation to that issue, the local authority has not received unredacted copies of the Second Respondent’s bank statements or had an opportunity to test the evidence of both Respondents by way of cross-examination. That being so, summary dismissal of the application (with the likely costs consequences) would not be just or appropriate at this stage.

(g) On the basis that the local authority is unwilling to withdraw its application, a short half-day final trial is appropriate with the following witness template: First Respondent Evidence-in-Chief 15 minutes, Cross-Examination 30 minutes; Second Respondent Evidence-in-Chief 15 minutes, Cross-Examination 30 minutes; Submissions 30 minutes; Judgment 30 minutes.

(h) Prior to the hearing the Second Respondent must (as she has very fairly willingly agreed to do) file and serve unredacted copies of the previously filed bank statements.

The mother provided the bank statements and details of the withdrawals and expenditure and the final hearing was on 2 February 2018. The Local Authority had withdrawn its application and left the matter of costs to be determined.

The young man had no savings so the usual rule of costs, that the costs be paid from the estate was not an option.  Judge Eldergill stated that the ‘proceedings had taken up a wholly disproportionate amount of court time and had been conducted with insufficient proportionality.’ The Judge concluded that the case could have been resolved in an efficient manner by simply reviewing bank statements and asking questions, but instead there were ‘hundreds of unnecessary and bad-tempered correspondence, witness statements, position statements and emails’ which amounted to approximately £50,000.00 plus VAT costs in respect of the Respondents costs and £15,000.00 in respect of the local authority’s costs.

Payment of costs in respect of property and financial affairs applications under Rule 19.2, state that the ‘costs should be paid by P or charged by to P’s estate’, however Rule 19.5 can be applied when there is support in departing from the general rule. The judge held that the litigation was conducted disproportionately by both sides and there was a failure to focus on the simple central issue of; whether the bank statements could indicate any misuse of funds. Furthermore, Judge Eldergill stated that he did not believe that the ‘costs incurred by the First Respondent were proportionate to the issues, complexity of the case and the son’s circumstances’.

The proportionality of the work undertaken on behalf of the First Respondent were deemed to be assessed on an item-by-item detailed assessment basis. The Local Authority would then pay 90% of those costs, with the 10% reduction reflecting the Courts findings of the conduct of the other party. The costs in relation to the Litigant in Person were much more complex and the Judge felt that they lead to an injustice. The Judge also called for the rules to be reviewed and revised so that the Court can award a Litigant in Person costs in a case such as this one. It will be interesting to see if there are any developments in this area.

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