In Gempride -v- Bambrah  EWCA Civ 1367 the Court found that a solicitor had mis-certified a bill of costs. As a result of that finding, the firm was required to self-report to the SRA.
The SRA has now published its findings from that investigation. Here, Andrew McAulay looks at 5 Key Points for certification of a bill.
Andrew McAulay is a Costs Lawyer, a Partner at Clarion, and head of the Costs and Litigation Funding Department.
The case of Jago v Whitbread Group plc relates to the Defendant’s application for an order pursuant to CPR 44.11(1) & (2), which reads as follows:
“The Court may make an order under this rule where –
- a party or that party’s legal representative, in connection with a summary or detailed assessment, fails to comply with a rule, practice direction or court order; or
- it appears to the Court that the conduct of a party or that party’s legal representative, before or during the proceedings or in the assessment proceedings, was unreasonable or improper.”
The Defendant requested that the Court disallow all or part of the Claimant’s entitlement to costs on the grounds of her solicitors improper and/or unreasonable conduct during the detailed assessment proceedings.
The following is a brief summary of the substantive case and detailed assessment proceedings:
- The Claimant brought a personal injury claim against the Defendant, which settled for damages of circa £41,000, with costs to be subject to detailed assessment, if not agreed.
- The matter settled on 4 March 2015 and on 12 March 2015, the Claimant disclosed an informal statement of costs to the Defendant. The statement of costs was a two page document which totalled £101,677.21. The statement included a success fee of 20%, various disbursements in the total sum of £537.00 and two and half hours for preparing and checking the statement of costs. The statement was signed by a senior solicitor and partner at the Claimant’s firm.
- On receipt of the statement of costs, the Defendant’s solicitors responded requesting disclosure of the Claimant’s conditional fee agreement, with the Claimant’s solicitors responding on 18 June 2015, stating that the Claimant “……was not subject to a CFA in regards to this matter”.
- The Defendant’s solicitors responded querying why therefore a success fee of 20% had been claimed in the statement of costs when no CFA was in existence.
- On 19 November 2015, the Claimant served notice of commencement of detailed assessment, with the bill of costs totalling £91,474.41. This bill of costs was of course over £10,000 less than the sum claimed in the statement of costs. Disbursements had been reduced to £430.00 and profit costs had also been reduced. A success fee of 25% was claimed in the bill of costs, despite the correspondence on 18 June 2015 stating that the matter was not subject to a CFA.
- The bill of costs was certified by the supervising solicitor and partner. A claim of three and a half hours was included by a law costs draftsman and one hour by the supervising solicitor to check the bill of costs. The certification confirmed that the bill of costs was valid and accurate (and therefore no breach of the indemnity principle).
- In December 2015, the Defendants served points of dispute and shortly thereafter amended points of dispute raising a number of significant queries and challenges to the bill of costs.
- On 15 January 2016, the Claimant filed and served a fresh bill of costs. Instead of amending the existing bill of costs, the Claimant’s solicitors effectively started the detailed assessment proceedings again with a redrafted bill of costs. The redrafted bill totalled £56,719.00, which represented a reduction of circa. £35,000.00 from the total sum claimed in the bill of costs served in November 2015.
- In respect of the revised bill of costs, the success fee was removed. Disbursements were reduced further to £385.00 and the profit costs sought in the bill were significantly reduced. Again, a claim of three and half hours was included in the bill of costs for a law costs draftsman preparing the same, together with an hour for the supervising solicitor/partner checking and certifying the bill of costs.
- On receipt of the redrafted bill of costs, the Defendant’s solicitors wrote to the Claimant’s solicitors highlighting the procedural error in that they should have simply amended the existing bill of costs rather than creating a new bill of costs.
- In response to that correspondence, on 8 April 2016 the Claimant’s solicitors filed and served a further bill, this time an amended bill of costs. The total sum claimed in the bill was £55,393.19. Profit costs were reduced again together with a further reduction to disbursements. Again, the bill was signed and certified by the supervising solicitor and partner.
Master Whalan found the Claimant’s solicitors’ actions to be “improper” and “unreasonable” and imposed the following penalty for the “improper” and “unreasonable” behaviour:
- The Claimant’s entitlement to costs be disallowed to the extent of 50% of the assessed costs allowed on detailed assessment.
- Specific deductions to the bill of costs (see paragraph 41 of the Judgment). These reductions included time in relation to other work done i.e. preparing, checking and certifying the bill of costs.
In reaching his decision, Master Whalan stated that the breaches in the case were significant, repeated and either unexplained or unjustified (paragraph 40 of the Judgment).
This is an excellent case which demonstrates the importance of preparing an accurate bill of costs and ensuring that a bill of costs does not breach the indemnity principle before certifying the same. What is clear from the Judgment is that Master Whalan would probably have been forgiving for the errors made in the first instance, but the failings the second time round and further failings thereafter were not capable of forgiveness and resulted in the severe penalty reduction of only 50% of assessed costs for the Claimant’s solicitors. So ensure statements of costs and bills of costs are prepared and checked properly!
This blog was prepared by Andrew McAulay who is a Partner at Clarion and Head of the Costs and Litigation Funding Team. Andrew can be contacted on 0113 336 3334 or at firstname.lastname@example.org