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

Advertisements

Proportionality – a flurry of cases

Proportionality is a hot topic in the legal costs world at the moment and in the last 4 months there has been a flurry of cases from the Senior Courts Costs Office and the High Court. The cases are as follows:

Marcura & DA-Desk FZ-LLC -v- Nisomar Ventures Limited & Claus Hyldager.

Various Claimants -v- MGN Ltd [2018]

Arjomandkhah -v- Nasrouallahi [2018]

Powell & others -v- The Chief Constable of West Midlands Police [2018]

The outcomes in each of these cases are of course case specific. Every case is different, and therefore in practice, this is what makes the application of the new test of proportionality difficult to predict.

It is now fundamentally important for all litigators and costs lawyers to have a sound knowledge of CPR 44.3 (5):

Costs incurred are proportionate if they bear a reasonable relationship to –

(a) the sums in issue in the proceedings;

(b) the value of any non-monetary relief in issue in the proceedings;

(c) the complexity of the litigation;

(d) any additional work generated by the conduct of the paying party; and

(e) any wider factors involved in the proceedings, such as reputation or public importance.

Lawyers should be able to link case facts/details to the above factors and articulate those facts to a Judge at a CCMC, summary assessment or to a Costs Judge on detailed assessment (or provisional assessment).

A really important point is that value shouldn’t be given superior status, as shown in the cases of Various Claimants -v- MGN Ltd [2018] and Marcura & DA-Desk FZ-LLC -v- Nisomar Ventures Limited & Claus Hyldager (costs can be higher than damages). However, in practice, Judge’s are often tactically led by Defendants to place a greater weight on value. It is therefore important for Claimants to be alive to this and ensure the Judge gives equal consideration to each factor in CPR 44.5 (3) and to encourage the Judge to adopt a ‘holistic’ approach (May & May -v- Wavell Group & Dr Bizzari [2018]) when applying the new test of proportionality.

The ’May’ case is the only case to date to give some real judicial guidance in relation to the test and how it should be applied. The decision in that case was appealed, but last week permission to appeal was refused by the Court of Appeal. Many legal experts expected the ‘May’ Appeal to provide the Court of Appeal with the chance to issue some clarity and guidance on the test – they will now have to wait a bit longer.

The area of proportionality is starting to develop and we will see many more decisions in 2018, with some appearing harsh and some lenient. The application of the test involves a large degree of judicial discretion and therefore practitioners should not expect a great deal of consistency. If certainty is what practitioners want then fixed costs is the remedy, which is of course not an attractive alternative!

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

 

Make sure your costs budgets, statements of costs and bills of costs are prepared correctly!

The Court of Appeal recently handed down Judgment (Gempride -v- Jagrit Bamrah and Lawlords of London Limited [2018]) in a case which involved alleged misconduct in detailed assessment proceedings.

The underlying claim related to a claim by Ms Bamrah against Gempride for personal injuries. The claim settled by way of CPR 36 on 18 March 2013 for £50,000.00. Ms Bamrah initially dealt with the claim through her own law firm (Falcon Legal) before the claim was transferred to David Stinson & Co.

The case dates back to 2014 where Master Leonard in the Senior Courts Costs Office struck out Part 1 of the Claimant’s bill of costs (insofar as the costs exceeded the fixed hourly rate recoverable by litigants-in-person) due to mis-certification, on the basis that:

  1. the bill contained incorrect hourly rates; and
  2. mis-leading information in relation to Before-the-Event (BTE) insurance was provided in the Replies to Points of Dispute.

The Claimant successfully appealed that decision before His Honour Judge Mitchell in the Central London County Court. One of the most notable reasons for the reversal of the decision was that the judge found that the Claimant was not responsible for the acts and omissions of the costs consultants that were instructed (Lawlords of London Limited).

The Defendant (Gempride) appealed and was successful before the Court of Appeal. In respect of the instruction of Lawlords of London Limited, and the very important point about a Solicitor not being responsible for the acts of omissions of an agent, Lord Justice Hickinbottom said:

At a time when new business practices mean that solicitors are more frequently subcontracting work out to the unauthorised, it seems to me to be an important matter of principle that solicitors on the record – and other authorised litigators and ‘legal representatives’ for the purposes of the CPR – understand that they remain ultimately responsible for the acts and omissions of those to whom they delegate parts of the conduct of litigation, particularly where those to whom such work is delegated are not authorised… it is only in that way that the supervisory jurisdiction of the court can be effectively maintained…”

“The reverse side of that coin is that, because the solicitor has responsibility for the conduct of those to whom he subcontracts work for which he as a solicitor has been retained, then he is able to charge for that work at an appropriate rate as profit costs (together with any success fee uplift under a CFA) and not simply as a disbursement.”

In respect of the bill of costs the Court of Appeal felt that there should be a penalty for the mis-certification, but that Master Leonard’s penalty was too severe; they disallowed 50% of Part 1 of the bill of costs. The Court did emphasise that the Claimant’s conduct in attempting to claim hourly rates which exceeded those in the retainer was not, in its judgment, dishonest. However, it found that on the best interpretation the Claimant had believed that as she was essentially acting for herself (albeit under the umbrella of Falcon Legal) and was entitled to modify the retainer “at will”, that this was fundamentally wrong, and that such conduct was “unreasonable or improper” to a level that could justify a sanction.

This is a very important decision for Solicitors who instruct costs lawyers and other costs professionals. It is fundamentally important that costs budgets, statements of costs and bills of costs are prepared correctly and the hourly rates claimed do not breach the indemnity principle – the Solicitor has the overall responsibility to make sure the costs document is correct as they certify it. It is also important to make sure that information in Points of Dispute and Replies to Points of Dispute is accurate. Failure to do so can result in costs penalties, but more importantly, allegations of misconduct and associated legal reporting which would be damaging for any law firms’ or legal costs firms’ reputation.

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

 

When a CFA describes the claim rather than the work it covers

The recent Court of Appeal decision of Malone v Birmingham Community NHS Trust [2018] EWCA Civ 1376 reinforced the importance of a clearly drafted funding document.

The case involved a prisoner at HMP Birmingham who pursued a claim for failure to diagnose testicular cancer between August 2010 and January 2011. The prison was operated by the Ministry of Justice, and health care services were provided by Birmingham Community NHS Trust, and Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health Foundation Trust.

The Claimant initially instructed Ross Aldridge Solicitors, who had difficulty in identifying the correct Defendant, and in March 2012 the Claimant transferred instructions to New Law Solicitors. They, too, encountered uncertainty when trying to identify the correct negligent Defendant.

The Claimant entered into a CFA with New Law Solicitors on 16 January 2013, which stated that the agreement covered “All work conducted on your behalf following your instructions provided on [sic] regarding your claim against Home Office for damages for personal injury suffered in 2010.”

On 04 October 2013, after proceedings were issued but yet to be served, Birmingham Community NHS Trust admitted responsibility for the Claimant’s treatment, and on 20 March 2014 damages were agreed in the sum of £10,000 plus costs.

A detailed assessment of costs commenced, and the Defendant challenged the enforceability of the CFA on the basis that it was limited to a claim against the Home Office/Ministry of Justice only. DJ Phillips, regional costs judge for Walker, found on 27 April 2015 that the CFA excluded a claim against the Defendant and therefore costs were not recoverable under the agreement as the Claimant had no contractual liability to pay his Solicitor for the work done in suing the Defendant.

The Claimant applied for permission to appeal, which was initially dismissed by HHJ Curman QC in a judgment dated 25 September 2015, but was later granted by Brigg LJ by way of order dated 28 July 2017.

On appeal, Patten LJ and Hamblen LJ considered whether the critical wording of the CFA (highlighted in bold above) merely identified the claim to which it related, or whether it limited the scope of the CFA to a claim against the Home Office only. It was necessary to consider the principles established in paragraphs 11-13 of Wood v Capita Insurance Services [2017] UKSC 24 to ascertain whether a textual analysis of the agreement was required or whether greater emphasis should be given to the factual matrix (contextualism).

[A textual analysis is typically used for agreements that have been negotiated and prepared with the assistance of skilled professionals. Alternatively, consideration of a factual matrix can also lead to the correct interpretation of an agreement, particularly if a contract had been made without skilled input].

Hamblen LJ stated that the “insertions made to the CFA demonstrate it as poor quality drafting and little attention to detail. The critical wording consists of only one sentence and yet it contains three manifest mistakes: (i) the omission of the date of the instructions and (ii) the omission of the definite article before “Home Office” and (iii) the description of the claim being against “Home Office”. The Home Office had not been responsible for operating prisons for some years”. The poor drafting led to a greater emphasis being placed on the factual matrix of the agreement rather than a close textual analysis.

Hamblen LJ considered the most natural reading of the critical wording as being a CFA that covered “all work conducted” on the Claimant’s behalf following “instructions provided” in respect of his claim “against Home Office” and he concluded that the wording was descriptive of the instructions received rather than of the work to be done. Further, he suggested that if the CFA had meant to provide only a limited coverage, greater care and precision would have been expected, but that in any event it would have been in neither party’s interest to seek to impose a strict definitional limit on the agreement so early in the claim.

Therefore, taking into account both textualism and contextualism, it was found that the CFA was not limited to a claim against the Home Office/Ministry of Justice only and the Claimants appeal was allowed.

Whilst in this case the judgment goes in favour of the receiving party, it highlights the importance of giving careful consideration to exactly what a retainer provides for, both at the outset and during the life of a claim, to ensure there are no pitfalls on assessment. It is crucial that time is invested into the creation of a retainer at the outset of a matter, and that it is regularly reviewed throughout the life of a case.

If you have any questions or queries in relation this blog please contact Joanne Chase (joanne.chase@clarionsolicitors.com and 0113 336 3327) 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.

INDEMNITY COSTS FOLLOWING DISCONTINUANCE OF PROCEEDINGS

CPR 38.3 provides that a Claimant may discontinue a claim by filing and serving a Notice of Discontinuance on the other parties. Under CPR 38.6(1) it states the following:

“Unless the court orders otherwise, a Claimant who discontinues is liable for the costs which a Defendant against whom the Claimant discontinues incurred on or before the date on which the Notice of Discontinuance was served…”.

Under CPR 44.9(1), such an order is a deemed order for costs and the basis of assessment is the standard basis.

The case of Two Right Feet Limited (in liquidation) -v- National Westminster Bank PLC and others is a case where the Claimant discontinued proceedings against the Defendants and the Defendants made an application for costs to be awarded on the indemnity basis due to the following issues:

  1. failure to engage pre-action;
  2. improper and unjustified allegations;
  3. an exaggerated claim;
  4. a case which was speculative (both in facts and law);
  5. a claim which was brought without proper investigation;
  6. concerns as to the approach to disclosure; and
  7. delayed discontinuance, other delays and more minor points.

Background

On 3 March 2015, the Claimant commenced proceedings against the Defendants.  In the claim form, the Claimant alleged that the Defendants were liable for deceit and conspiracy.  The claim was first notified to the First and Second Defendants on 9 June 2015 and the claim form was served on 3 July 2015. The amounts claimed amounted to £20 million. The claims were strenuously denied by the Defendants.  On 7 October 2016 there was a case management conference where directions were set and the case was transferred into the Mercantile Court.  Disclosure followed in January 2017, but on 22 February 2017 the Claimant discontinued its claim. 

Indemnity Basis Costs Order

The Judgment provides very useful information for any party considering an application for an indemnity basis costs order as it cites the leading authorities (paragraph 36 is very useful to read in this regard).

The Judge concluded that an order for indemnity costs was appropriate and determined that the way in which the case had been advanced by the Claimant (and conducted) carried the case out of the norm, which is of course an important consideration for any court when deciding whether to award indemnity costs.

The case also highlights the importance of the receiving party (Defendants in this case) making an application. Notice of Discontinuance creates a deemed order for costs on the standard basis. Should a receiving party feel that they are entitled to indemnity basis costs then they should seek agreement with the paying party (Claimant in this case) or make an application to Court. A receiving party should not leave the matter for detailed assessment – the detailed assessment hearing is a forum to determine the quantum of costs, not to determine the basis of assessment.

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