Calling trumps: Sue Fox on how the court has laid its cards on the table over costs management. The interaction between costs budgeting and costs assessment – Merrix v Heart of England NHS, the appeal of the first instance ruling.

The interaction between costs budgeting and costs assessment has been considered again in Merrix v Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust [2017] EWHC 346 (QB) – the appeal of a first Merrix v Heart of England NHS instance ruling.

Mrs Justice Carr found that the court will have ‘regard to the receiving party’s last approved or agreed budget by respecting it or finding that there is a good reason to depart from it’……………………………………………

………………………….. So, the question to be answered is – will a receiving party’s costs
be allowed in full if they are less than the budget? Yes – for now! The Merrix decision confirms that any departure from the budget applies to both downward and upward revisions, hence parties have to show a good reason to depart from the budget.

Does Mrs Justice Carr’s finding in Merrix deny the paying parties an opportunity to challenge potentially unreasonable costs, despite it being their responsibility for the costs of challenging those costs? At the moment – yes.

Is it ‘just’ for the receiving party to request their costs in full simply because they have been incurred and fall within the parameters of the budget? What safety mechanism is in place to ensure that any receiving party does not include unreasonable and disproportionate costs in their claim for costs, simply justified on the basis that they ‘fall within budget’?

Mrs Justice Carr felt that the indemnity principle was sufficient, though perhaps it is not – unreasonable costs can be claimed from the client, hence the need for Solicitors Act assessments. Or alternatively, the client may have little regard to the constraints of the budget and request that ‘out of scope’ or disproportionate and unreasonable costs are incurred in any event.

How can restraints be imposed on a spendthrift client with deep pockets, and at the same time discourage a paying party from being overzealous in their requests for detailed assessment? Perhaps the introduction of the ‘one-fifth rule’ to costs budgeted cases could be the answer. This shares the burden of the costs consequences, rather than the traditional costs shifting rule. If the bill is reduced by more than 20%, then the receiving party is responsible for those costs rather than the paying party, but if the paying party secures less than a 20% reduction to the bill, then they become responsible for those costs.

This should encourage all parties to think seriously about committing to detailed assessment, rather than the onus being on the paying party. Not only does this tie in nicely with the rules for Solicitors Act assessments, but it is also in line with the rules surrounding provisional assessment relating to the recoverability of costs for an oral
hearing (see article, page 10). Further, it embraces Jackson’s intention to reduce the number of detailed assessments, and at the same time does not deprive parties the opportunity to challenge the costs. Just a thought.

Is this the end? Perhaps only for now. Mrs Justice Carr requested that if this decision were to be appealed, then it should be heard together with any existing listings covering the same point of principle.

In her decision, she referred to Harrison, which was soon to be heard in the Court of Appeal. The Harrison decision is listed for May, and so the paying party in Merrix may be running out of time to get this listed together with Harrison – but we await with interest.

Please click here to read the full article which was published in the April edition of the Litigation Funding magazine.

Sue Fox is the Head of Costs Budgeting in the Costs and Litigation Funding department at Clarion Solicitors. You can contact her at sue.fox@clarionsolicitors.com and 0113 336 3389, or the Clarion Costs Team on 0113 246 0622.

Merrix v Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust [2017] EWHC 346 (QB) – On appeal, Mrs Justice Carr confirms that the good reason test to depart from a budget relates to both downward and upward departures.

Merrix v Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust [2017] EWHC 346 (QB) – On appeal, Mrs Justice Carr confirms that the good reason test to depart from a budget relates to both downward and upward departures.

The inter-action between costs budgeting and costs assessment has been considered again in the appeal of the case of Merrix v Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust [2016]. DJ Lumb found that:

It is not helpful in the context of this debate to consider “departure” within the meaning of CPR 3.18 as being upwards or downwards. It is important to understand that the departure refers to a departure from the budget not from a fixed sum. Just because a party has incurred costs that come in at under the total for a phase is not a departure from the budget. Applying the ordinary meaning of the words the party is still within the budget unless or until the Court revises the budget. It is not the replacement of one fixed sum with another fixed sum. The purpose of the form Precedent Q is to set out the differences between the actual expenditure and the budgeted figures for each phase. It is not intended to be some advanced assessment of the recoverable costs. If having completed a line by line assessment of the reasonable costs the Court considers that the costs are still disproportionate, the Precedent Q could be a useful breakdown for the Court to use to make adjustments to ensure the resulting figure is proportionate”. 

DJ Lumb concluded that the budget and the bill of costs were different tools for Courts to manage costs, which were applied at different times. Consequently, despite the cost claimed being less than the budget, DJ Lumb (Regional Costs Judge) ordered that detailed assessment was appropriate.

This decision has been appealed to the High Court and the appeal has been allowed, with Mrs Justice Carr finding:

“In my judgment, the answer to the preliminary issue is as follows: where a costs management order has been made, when assessing costs on the standard basis, the costs judge will not depart from the receiving party’s last approved or agreed budget unless satisfied that there is good reason to do so. This applies as much where the receiving party claims a sum equal to or less than the sums budgeted as where the receiving party seeks to recover more than the sums budgeted”.

This decision now falls in line with LJ Jackson’s report and the cases of Slick Seating and Safetynet. In 2012, in the case of Safetynet Security LTD v Coppage [2012] EWHC B11, HHJ Simon Brown QC stated that “since the Claimant’s costs were within the budget approved by the court, a detailed assessment would be an unnecessary and expensive course of action to take”. Costs were awarded in the Claimant’s favour, in the amount of the budget. Later in the case of Slick Seating Systems & Ors v Adams & Ors [2013] EWHC B8 (Mercantile), HHJ Simon Brown QC observed that the Claimant had “laudably kept within the budget and exercised due control over their activities and expenditure in an exemplary fashion” and that their budget was proportionate to what was at stake, he awarded the claimant their costs as claimed.

LJ Jackson’s view of how cost budgeting would work was explained at Chapter 40 1.4 (iv) of his report:

“At the end of the litigation, the recoverable costs of the winning party are assessed in accordance with the approved budget

And at Chapter 40 1.5 of his report:

“Issues for consideration. If costs management becomes a feature of civil litigation in the future, many issues will have to be considered before any set of costs management rules is drawn up. In particular: (iv) In so far as the last approved budget is binding, should it operate as an upper limit upon recoverable costs or should it operate as a form of assessment in advance? “

At Chapter 45 of his final report the Law Society noted that:

”If the costs management proposals set out in the Preliminary Report are accepted, it would seem that detailed assessment will have a place only in the context of cases where RP’s costs significantly exceed the budget”. The Commercial Litigation Association (“CLAN”) believed that “detailed assessment will become less common if costs management is adopted”.

That said, the case of Troy Foods v Manton [2013] EWCA Civ 615, Lord Justice Moore-Bick warned that an approved budget is not a licence to conduct litigation in ‘an unnecessarily expensive way’. He added that: “I do not accept that costs judges should, or will, treat the court’s approval of a budget as demonstrating, without further consideration, that the costs incurred by the receiving party are reasonable or proportionate simply because they fall within the scope of the approved budget.”

So, the question to be answered is – will your costs be allowed in full if they are less than the budget? Yes, unless parties can show a good reason to depart from the budget – Merrix  now confirms that this applies to both downward and upward revisions to the budget.

Sue Fox is the Head of Costs Budgeting in the Costs and Litigation Funding department at Clarion Solicitors. You can contact her at sue.fox@clarionsolicitors.com and 0113 336 3389, or the Clarion Costs Team on 0113 246 0622.