Underspend, not good reason to depart from budget, unless phase substantially incomplete

The Costs Budget remains essential to costs recovery and monitoring continues to play an all-important role. The courts have previously ruled that an underspend of any phase constitutes a good reason to depart from the budget, however during a recent detailed assessment of costs in Utting v City College Norwich [2020] EWHC B20 (Costs) Master Brown adopted a different approach, agreeing with DJ Lumb in the case of Chapman v Norfolk & Norwich University Hospitals NHSFT [2020], as he commented:

“if an underspend were to be a good reason for departing from a budget it would be liable to substantially undermine the effectiveness of cost budgeting. As the Judge effectively observed, solicitors who had acted efficiently and kept costs within budget would find their costs subject to detailed assessment, whereas less efficient solicitors who exceeded the budget would, absent any other “good reason”, receive the budgeted sum and avoid detailed assessment.”

Consequently, the opportunity to secure a full recovery of budgeted costs (i.e. those estimated costs that have been incurred), is increased if the costs incurred fall within the budget.

Master Brown largely sided with DJ Lumb’s approach in the case of Chapman when he determined that underspending in a phase was not a good reason to depart from the budget. A budgeted phase coming up short is limited to the sum spent because of the indemnity principle, but that does not open it up to scrutiny more generally in the absence of further “good reason”.

Counsel for the Defendant in Utting submitted that if the amount of a phase does not match the budgeted sum then the costs of that phase are subject to detailed assessment including where there has been an underspend. The claim had settled some 20 days before trial following an unsuccessful joint settlement meeting. The bill claimed costs slightly lower than those budgeted but Master Brown deemed all phases to be complete, save for the Trial Preparation phase and Trial phase. For the phases regarded as complete he opined:

the fact that a party has spent less than its budget for a phase does not mean there is therefore in fact a good or appropriate reason for any further reduction and I was not satisfied that there was any additional “good reason” for any such reduction.

The Defendant was however given permission to argue “good reason” for departure in the Trial Preparation and Trial phases on the grounds that these phases had not substantially been completed and described this as:

“a clear and obvious distinction between an ‘underspend’ and the situation that arose in respect to the Trial and Trial Preparation phases where plainly there was, at the very least, substantial non-completion

This was the key difference to the approach taken by DJ Lumb in Chapman. The thrust of the ruling in Chapman seemed to be that once a budget was set, a party could spend a budgeted phase however it chose.

In Utting the Defendant sought to rely on the 2019 ruling in Barts Health NHS Trust v Salmon where not spending the totality of the budgeted figure for a particular phase, by virtue of the indemnity principle itself, did constitute “good reason”. The point of settlement of this case was pre-agreement of joint expert meeting agendas and before any JSM and so unsurprisingly the sums claimed in the Expert and ADR phases were less than the sum which had been budgeted for. Master Brown made reference to the fact he sat as an assessor in Barts Health NHS Trust v Salmon but justified taking a different tack in Utting on the basis that in Barts Health  “the assumptions upon which the budget had been prepared were not fulfilled”.

The approach taken in Barts health essentially incentivised a receiving party to overspend to avoid detailed assessment. DJ Lumb recognised this in Chapman and highlighted how it was problematic. Although Master Brown in Utting agreed with DJ Lumb as to the overall effect of the ruling in Barts Health, Master Brown went on to comment:

“There is however nothing per se unjust if a receiving party were to receive a sum by way of costs which is less than the budgeted sum. This is, of course, to be contrasted with the situation where a phase is not substantially completed, where it would, to my mind, be unjust for a receiving party to receive the full amount of a budgeted sum in circumstances where only a modest amount of the expected work had been done.”

As none of the cases referred to above are binding there remains an absence of clarity surrounding “good reason” to depart from a budget when the receiving party has underspent. The decision in Utting does however seem to have refined the approach in Chapman, causing Barts Health to appear to be more of an anomaly, further highlighting the importance of budgets and budget monitoring.

Anna Lockyer is an Associate in the Costs and Litigation Funding Department at Clarion Solicitors. You can contact her at anna.lockyer@clarionsolicitors.com and 0113 288 5619, or the Clarion Costs Team on 0113 246 0622