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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Hourly Rates: Justification on Assessment

In the recent case of JXA -v- Kettering General Hospital NHS Foundation Trust [2018] EWHC 1747 (QB) the Court provided clarification in relation to how solicitors’ hourly rates are to be assessed.

By way of brief background, the underlying claim related to a case of infant cerebral trauma. Th case ultimately settled on the basis of 90% liability attaching to the Defendant. Damages were not resolved but it was resolved that they would run into many millions of pounds, potentially £20 million.

The Claimant served a bill of costs in which the Claimant claimed hourly rates of £380 – £420 for Grade A fee earners, £270 for Grade C fee earners, and £150 – £190 for Grade D fee earners.

The initial assessment was carried out by Master Nagalingam of the Senior Courts Costs Office, who allowed rates of £350, £200 and £150 respectively.

On appeal, it was alleged that the Master had incorrectly applied the test in in Wraith -v- Sheffield Foremesters Ltd, Truscott -v- Truscott [1997] EWCA Civ 2285 which provides that in assessing hourly rates the court must consider:-

  1. Whether the choice to instruct the firm of solicitors engaged was reasonable; and

 

  1. Whether the charges of that solicitor were reasonable, taking into account the broad averages of charges of firms practicing in that area.

If the answer to the first limb of the test is “no” then the court will determine what firm or class of firm it would have been reasonable to instruct, and then apply the second stage of the test on the basis of that notional firm.

The Claimant alleged that the Master had failed to directly address the first stage of the test in Wraith. In fact, the Master had implied a finding that he considered the appropriate comparator for the purpose of the first stage of the test to have been a solicitor practicing in Outer London.

In judgment, the appellate court held that the Master had not addressed the first limb of the test in Truscott. However, the court went on to find that despite this, the Master had correctly considered the charges of comparable solicitors undertaking comparable work and that therefore the hourly rates allowed were within the ambit of the Master’s wide discretion on costs. Accordingly the Court dismissed the appeal.

Analysis

Following the decision in Surrey -v- Barnet & Chase Farm House Hospitals NHS Trust [2018] EWCA Civ 451, “the choice does not have to be the best one, but merely a reasonable one”. This means that the mere fact that there is or was an alternative solicitor who could have conducted the matter at a lower hourly rate does not in itself indicate that the decision was unreasonable for the purpose of the test in Wraith.

Nevertheless, it is relatively easy for a paying party to conduct a search of solicitors practicing in the same area in the locality of the receiving party on the Law Society website. Of course, it is usually the case that even if other solicitors can be identified, neither party will be able to prove what their charging rates. However, on a standard basis assessment any doubt will be resolved in favour of the paying party (CPR 44.3). Furthermore, where there are a large number of firms it may be possible to argue that such competition will or should have the effect of forcing hourly rates down. What is more, it should be usual practice for paying parties to enquire what investigations were undertaken by the receiving party into the availability of alternative solicitors and any quotes or information regarding hourly rates were received. If the receiving party fails to provide such information, the paying party can argue that either it indicates that no investigations were undertaken (and that therefore the choice was unreasonable), or that the solicitors instructed charged rates in excess of those charged by other firms. In either case, doubt should be resolved in favour of the paying party.

Summary

Solicitors should carefully consider the level of their hourly rates at the outset, and be prepared to justify them. One case which will assist is Higgs -v- Camden & Islington Health Authority [2003] EWHC 15 (QB) in which the Court set out a matrix for the calculation of hourly rates enhanced above guideline rates. Some form of “risk assessment” conducted at the outset, applying the test in Higgs, may well assist in justifying the hourly rates claimed on a detailed assessment of costs.

Matthew Rose is a Solicitor in the Costs and Litigation Funding department at Clarion Solicitors. You can contact him at matthew.rose@clarionsolicitors.com, or the Clarion Costs Team on 0113 2460622

The Hourly Rate Debate: the effect of costs management on hourly rates

There has recently been a flurry of case law in respect of the effect of costs management on hourly rates at detailed assessment.

With regard to costs management, there are two rules of central importance, both contained within Practice Direction 3E:-

Para 7.3 provides that “The court’s approval will relate only to the total figures for budgeted costs of each phase of the proceedings, although in the course of its review the court may have regard to the constituent elements of each total figure. When reviewing budgeted costs, the court will not undertake a detailed assessment in advance, but rather will consider whether the budgeted costs fall within the range of reasonable and proportionate costs.”

CPR PD 3E (7.10), which states that It is not the role of the Court in the costs management hearing to fix or approve the hourly rates claimed… the underlying detail… is provided for reference purposes only”.

As to Detailed assessment, the relevant rule is Part 44.3(1), which provides that:-

Regardless of the basis upon which costs are assessed “…the court will not in either case allow costs which have been unreasonably incurred or are unreasonable in amount”.

The starting point is the judgment in Harrison -v- University Hospitals Coventry & Warwickshire NHS Trust [2017] EWCA Civ 792, which held that where there is an approved budget, the court is empowered to sanction a departure from the budget if it considers that there is good reason to do so. What the judgment did not say is that the figure allowed for a particular phase in a costs management order will be allowed unless there is good reason to depart from it. The distinction is subtle, but important.

Following a month later, the judgment in RNB -v- London Borough of Newham [2017] EWHC B15 (Costs) gave guidance on how the Court would approach hourly rates in the context of a costs management order. In RNB it was held that if hourly rates were reduced on assessment, that reduction would apply to all of the costs claimed, whether they were incurred pre- or post- the costs management order.

In Bains -v- Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust, 18th August 2017, The County Court at Birmingham (Unreported), District Judge Lumb expressly disagreed with the position in RNB and found that “to reduce hourly rates for budgeted costs to the same levels as those allowed for the incurred costs… would be to second guess the thought process of Costs Managing Judge and would impute a risk of double jeopardy...”

In the absence of a report or transcript, we do not know what reasoning underpinned the judge’s finding in Bains. What is clear is that a central assumption to the finding in Bains was that the judge at costs management may have accounted for a reduction to hourly rates when making the costs management order. It could be said that such an assumption would be tantamount to a finding that the judge at costs management had breached CPR PD 3E (7.10), by in effect setting the hourly rates when making the costs management order. It might well be argued that such an assumption was unreasonable.

Furthermore, the judgment in Bains explicitly states that there is a risk of double jeopardy; in other words, that the judge on assessment may have considered a reduction to hourly rates when making the costs management order. At least on a standard basis assessment, CPR 44.3(2)(b), any doubt as to whether the court on costs management had done so should be resolved in favour of the paying party. Thus in the absence of an explicit finding that the judge on costs management had factored in a reduction to the hourly rates, the court on assessment should assume that they did not.

A little later, in Nash -v- Ministry of Defence [2018] EW Misc B4 (CC), Master Nagalingam of the Senior Courts Costs Office held that a reduction to hourly rates in respect of the incurred costs would not be a ‘good reason’ to depart from the budget for future costs. This has led to some litigants arguing that where there is a Costs Management Order, so long as the party is within budget for the given phase, a reduction to hourly rates will not ‘carry through’ to the future costs in the budget. It is important to recognise that, in Nash, the receiving party’s budget had been agreed.

The central question here is whether or not a reduction to hourly rates is a ‘departure’ from the costs management order. As stated above, hourly rates are not to be fixed or set by the court on costs management. Therefore, if the hourly rates do not form a part of the costs management order, a reduction to hourly rates for ‘future’ costs cannot be said to be a departure from it. By analogy, an additional liability (such as an ATE premium, which is recoverable in Clinical Negligence matters) does not form a part of the budget, and therefore a reduction to such a premium does not constitute a departure.

It is also important to note that CPR PD 3E 7.3 provides that the purpose of costs management is for the court to identify a range of costs which it considers to be reasonable and proportionate for the conduct of the claim. However, the fact that a costs management order has been made does not justify a party incurring costs which are individually unreasonable so long as they fall within budget. In the context of hourly rates, therefore, if it is found that an hourly rate of say £450 per hour is unreasonable, then that hourly rate is unreasonable regardless of whether the work was done before or after the costs management order was made.

Some commentators have argued that the judgments in Bains and Nash are an attempt by the Courts to implement the intention of Jackson LJ to remove the need for detailed assessment. Returning to Harrison, Davis LJ commented that the case had “descended into a kind of arms race in collecting views or comments… with an aim of… extracting some kind of clue as to what [had been] intended…” when the rules were drafted. Importantly he went on to comment “this is beside the point… what we have to do is construe the wording of [the CPR]”. It is quite clear that, in the judgment of the Court of Appeal, it is not the function of the Court to decide what the intention behind the rules was, but only to interpret what the Rules mean and how they apply to the facts.

The difficulty faced by litigators and judges at present is that the rules are unclear, and there is little guidance as to how they should be implemented. This results in a lack of clarity and certainty when proceeding to assessment of costs. In my opinion, there are two potential routes by which the rules might be improved:-

  1. The detailed approach

The Precedent H is amended to remove reference to hourly rates and time. There could then be no question of the assessing judge taking hourly rates into account. As the court cannot set the hourly rates in any event, this should have no practical impact upon the making of costs management orders; the judge on costs management will have a feel for the case and will be fully qualified to consider the work which needs to be done in each phase and make a judgment as to the amount of costs which it would be reasonable and proportionate to incur in doing it.

  1. The summary approach

The court is empowered to set rates at costs management, and also to make a judgment in relation to incurred costs. Under this system, the judge would summarily consider the costs already incurred in the litigation and include within the costs management order what each party will be allowed at the conclusion in respect of the costs already incurred. The court will set a limit for future costs, and the successful party is entitled at the conclusion of the litigation to the amount allowed by the court in respect of incurred costs, plus all amounts incurred after the costs management order so long as they are less than the budget.

The first approach would continue to provide for a detailed assessment at the conclusion of the proceedings, the second approach would not. Of course, the problem with the second approach is that it could give rise to unfairness as parties would not be able to deal with their opponents’ costs in detail.

What is clear is that under the current rules, there is significant doubt over how they should be interpreted, and we will have to wait and see whether this doubt will be rectified by the rules or by binding judgments in the courts.

Matthew Rose is a Solicitor in the Costs and Litigation Funding department at Clarion Solicitors. You can contact him at matthew.rose@clarionsolicitors.com, or the Clarion Costs Team on 0113 2460622.

Getting your orders right – Fixed Costs

The introduction of fixed costs was expected to create certainty in the amount which parties would recover at the conclusion of a claim. However the rules as drafted leave numerous lacunas and gaps which parties can exploit, which in turn has lead to satellite litigation. This is not what the drafters of the rules intended and is often not in the interest of the parties, as it leads to additional further cost which, in many cases and given the already low amount of costs recoverable, can be disproportionate.

In order to avoid this risk it is important that practitioners ensure that terms of settlement make proper provision for costs to avoid the risk of further litigation. This is a complex topic, and this is intended as a quick reference guide to help you to avoid the pitfalls so that you do not fall into the ‘fixed costs trap’.

  1. Claims which leave the portal

Pursuant to the Protocols, a claim will leave the portal if it is revalued in an amount higher than the protocol limit (currently £25,000). However, CPR 45.29A states that fixed costs apply where the claim was started in the protocol. Of critical importance is to note that the mere fact that the claim was revalued at more than the protocol limit does not mean that standard basis costs apply. Practitioners should be wary of this when settling such claims and should either:

  1. Settle only on terms that standard basis (not fixed) costs apply. Therefore CPR 36 should be avoided; or
  2. Refuse to settle until after allocation of the claim to the multi-track, as allocation to the multi-track causes fixed costs to cease to apply (see Qadar v Esure)

Whilst it may seem extreme to refuse settlement until allocation, this is at present the only way to ensure (so much as it is ever possible to ensure) that fixed costs will not apply. It should be borne in mind that such an approach is a calculated risk, as it is possible that a court would find that such conduct is ‘unreasonable’ should the matter proceed. That said, it should be possible to argue that without agreement fixed costs would apply and that the claimant is therefore better off and as such the conduct was not unreasonable.

  1. Settlement by CPR 36.20

Where fixed costs do apply and the claim is settled by part 36, there is no right to detailed assessment. If a dispute arises over fixed costs then one of the parties must apply.

  1. Non-Part 36 settlement

It is generally preferable to seek to agree the amount of fixed costs which apply. Failure to do so can lead to disputes (and costly applications) over the correct level of fixed costs and ‘reasonable’ disbursements. It is currently unclear whether the costs of such applications are recoverable. Including a provision in a settlement agreement should be straightforward, as the costs are fixed. If an opponent refuses to do so it may be that they intend to raise technical arguments about the costs which are recoverable.

Claimants should note that defendants are aware of these argument and therefore may try to catch out the unwary.

This is a very quick summary of the issues surrounding settlement in cases to which fixed costs apply, however with the imminent introduction of fixed costs in cases of noise induced hearing loss slated for 2019 at the latest and he likely introduction of fixed costs in all cases in around 2020, these issues will only become more relevant. On current information, the proposed rules for NIHL claims do not fix any of the existing issues with fixed costs and therefore we can expect these problems to persist for some time.

Matthew Rose is a Solicitor in the Costs and Litigation Funding department at Clarion Solicitors. You can contact him at matthew.rose@clarionsolicitors.com, or the Clarion Costs Team on 0113 2460622.