Success Fees and ATE Premiums post-LASPO – HH Law v Herbert Law Limited – Court of Appeal decision

The case of HH Law Limited v Herbert [2019] EWCA Civ 527

Background

This is a matter that was subject to a further appeal following the original appeal heard in March 2018. My colleague, Andrew McAulay, has prepared a useful summary of the outcome of that appeal and the background to the dispute which I will not repeat here.

Costs proceedings

In the subsequent appeal, HH Law (HH) sought to appeal two main areas; the reduction in the success fee, and the finding that the ATE Premium was a disbursement.

The Success Fee

The first ground of appeal put forward by HH was that, in a solicitor/client assessment, costs would be considered reasonably incurred and reasonable in amount if there had been express or implied approval by the client (CPR 46.9(3)). HH were able to successfully show that the documents provided to the client provided a ‘clear and comprehensive account of her exposure to the success fee and HH’s fees generally’.

However, it was under CPR 46.9(4) whereby the Court held that a success fee of 100% on the circumstances was unusual in both nature and amount. The Court of Appeal stated that the approach to calculating a success fee was to base it upon the solicitor’s perception of litigation risk at the time the agreement was made.

HH contended, within a witness statement, that it was a fundamental part of their business model to set the success fee on all cases at 100% irrespective of the litigation risk, and that such a business model was prevalent across the industry following the changes introduced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing, and Punishment of Offenders Act 2013 (LASPO). The Court of Appeal dismissed this approach and stated that there had been insufficient information provided to the client to ensure that informed consent was achieved in respect of the basis of setting the success fee at 100% for all cases irrespective of risk. The success fee was, therefore, held at 15%.

Comment: This may be considered an alarming result in the grand scheme of things and could lead to an increase in solicitor/client challenges to the level of success fee deducted from damages.

However, there is a simple solution to these challenges. The judgment firmly establishes that success fees should be calculated based upon the litigation risk at the date the agreement was entered. It is therefore essential to carry out a risk assessment when entering into the CFA.

The ATE Premium

HH had incurred the costs of the ATE premium and deducted it directly from the firm’s client account. Ms Herbert had contended that the premium was a disbursement and, therefore, could be challenged under a solicitor/client assessment. The Court carefully considered the definitions of what a solicitors’ disbursement was

‘a disbursement qualifies as a solicitors’ disbursement if either (1) it is a payment which the solicitor is, as such, obliged to make whether or not put in funds by the client, such as court fees, counsel’s fees, and witnesses’ expenses, or (2) there is a custom of the profession that the particular disbursement is properly treated as included in the bill as a solicitors’ disbursement’.

The Court came to the conclusion that an ATE premium did not fall within either definition, and that HH had been acting as an agent of the client when paying the ATE premium.

Comment: It was noted that the consequence of this finding would significantly reduce a client’s ability to challenge the amount of ATE premiums in future, and obiter, it was suggested that steps could be taken to bring ATE premiums within the definition of disbursements in future.

We still have places available at our next Costs and Litigation Funding Masterclass on 16 May 2019. https://lnkd.in/d33uy9e

This blog was prepared by Kris Kilsby who is an Associate Costs Lawyer at Clarion and part of the Costs Litigation Funding Team.  Kris can be contacted at kris.kilsby@clarionsolicitors.com or on 0113 227 3628.

 

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Make sure you prepare a Risk Assessment!

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) was a piece of legislation which introduced a number of very important changes to civil litigation costs and funding.

One of those changes was the abolition of the recovery of additional liabilities inter partes for retainers created on or after 1 April 2013 (save for some limited exemptions). This meant that additional liabilities were to be paid by clients, and on personal injury matters, it was foreseen (and currently happens in practice) that they would be deducted from the client’s damages. Additional liabilities are therefore now a solicitor/own client expense.

The case of Herbert -v- HH Law Limited is a case that any law firm conducting personal injury litigation (and deducting additional liabilities from clients’ damages) should read. The case relates to an Appeal by the Defendant Solicitors (“HH”) of decisions made by District Judge Bellamy at Sheffield County Court in April and June 2017. The decisions on Appeal were:

  1. The reduction of a success fee from 100% to 15%;
  2. Approval of a cash account in terms which treated the payment of an ATE Insurance Premium as a solicitor’s disbursement; and
  3. Ordering HH to pay the costs of the assessment and refusing to inquire further into HH’s contention that the retainer of the Claimant’s new solicitors (JG Solicitors Limited) was illegal and/or unenforceable.

The appeal was heard on 21 March 2018 before Mr Justice Soole at Sheffield High Court, where he dismissed all 3 grounds.

Key Points

  1. A Risk Assessment should always be prepared in respect of any Conditional Fee Agreement. The LASPO reforms have not resulted in risk assessments no longer being required (a point unsuccessfully argued by HH). A Risk Assessment is a very important document that goes to the heart of the calculation of the success fee. It is a key document for the Court to consider in any solicitor/own client dispute over the level of a success fee charged. It is important that law firms do not take a ‘blanket’ approach to success fees. Law firms should calculate success fees individually on each case, taking into account the specific facts and risks.

    In this case, the success fee was claimed at 100%, but by virtue of the LASPO reforms was subject to a maximum cap of 25% of the total amount of general damages for pain, suffering, loss of amenity and damages for past financial loss. The Appeal Judge endorsed the success fee allowed by District Judge Bellamy, which was based on the findings that the facts of the case were straightforward, the nature of the injury was minor soft tissue damage and whiplash, there was no time off work and it was likely that the case would be settled for a modest amount in a short period of time.

    The Appeal Judge stated: 

    in the circumstances of this particular case, allowing for the fact that the modest disbursements were funded by the solicitors for a fairly short period, the appropriate success fee was 15%……”.

    This case therefore represents a useful guide as to what the success fee should be on straightforward and low value personal injury work.

  2. An ATE insurance premium should be treated as a solicitor’s disbursement and should therefore be included in any final invoice to a client and in any solicitor/own client bill/breakdown of costs.

    In this case, the Defendant did not treat the ATE premium accordingly and therefore failed to properly include it within the final invoice. The result of this was that when District Judge Bellamy considered and approved the cash account, it left a balance of £349.00, which was ordered to be refunded to the Claimant (despite the Defendant actually paying the sum to the insurer!).

The Appeal Judge said the following:

“if the solicitor fails to include the item in the delivered bill of costs, he has to bear the consequence; subject to an application for leave to withdraw the bill and deliver a fresh bill”.

Summary

It is therefore very important for any firms which conduct litigation work under Conditional Fee Agreements (with the support of ATE insurance) to ensure that Risk Assessments are properly prepared for each case and that ATE insurance premiums are included in final invoices to clients.

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

Pre 1.4.13 CFA – Advocacy or Litigation services provided OR not?

The recent case of Choudhury -v- Markerstudy could have serious repercussions for receiving parties in Detailed Assessments.  Here is a brief summary of the case:

  • Rohan Choudhury (a child) suffered an accident on 12 March 2013. Rohan was a minor and was therefore represented by her Mother, Mrs Choudhury.
  • An Infant Approval hearing took place in January 2015, where the Court approved a settlement figure of £1,050.00.
  • The Claimant was represented by Irwin Mitchell solicitors, who at the time of instruction, were acting under a Collective Conditional Fee Agreement (CCFA) with Aviva.
  • Following the accident Aviva wrote to the Claimant, and thereafter, Irwin Mitchell wrote to the Claimant explaining the terms in which they would be retained. Those letters were sent before 1 April 2013, but no other work was carried out.
  • Mrs Choudhury instructed Irwin Mitchell by signing a document on 1 April 2013 and returning it. The document that she signed was the pre 1 April 2013 CCFA.
  • The Defendant argued that the retainer was invalid because it was signed and entered into on 1 April 2013, but was based on a regime which on 1 April 2013, was no longer available to litigants (and therefore invalid).
  • The Claimant stated that this was incorrect because ‘Advocacy or litigation Services were provided to the Claimant under the agreement in connection with that matter before the commencement day’ (Section 44.6, 6b of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 – ‘LASPO’).
  • The Court ruled that ‘Advocacy or litigation services’ had not been provided and therefore the retainer was invalid. As a consequence, no costs were payable by the Defendant to the Claimant as there was no indemnity between the Claimant and the Claimants Solicitors.

The District Judge clearly adopted a strict interpretation of LASPO and what amounts to ‘Advocacy and litigation services’. The paying party did not dispute that if litigation services had been provided then the retainer would have been valid.

This Judgment will no doubt cause concern to receiving parties.  Whilst the Judgment is only at County Court level, it will encourage paying parties to raise such arguments. There will still be plenty of cases left in the system where the additional liabilities were entered into very close to 1 April 2013.  In fact, it was widely reported in many legal publications (at the time) that law firms had signed up clients to Conditional Fee Agreements, and in particular ATE insurance, very close to the deadline of 1 April 2013.

Many believe that a black and white approach should be adopted in relation to the inception i.e. if the additional liability was incepted pre 1 April 2013 then it is valid and the associated additional liability recoverable, however, if it is entered into post 1 April 2013 then the additional liability is not recoverable.  The issue over ‘Advocacy or litigation services’ will create some interesting arguments!

In my opinion, what law firms should have done is sent a “holding” Letter of Claim to the Opponent (or likely Opponent) prior to 1 April 2013.  Surely, this would have provided protection from the ‘Advocacy or litigation services’ point?

The key practical point from the Judgment is that the work which was done before 1 April 2013 was effectively ‘client care’ work. In reality, the case will only have an impact on clients who were signed up to CFA’s and/or ATE insurance premiums close to 1 April 2013.  For example, if a client was on a private fee paying retainer from say January 2013, but switched to a CFA retainer in late March 2013, then ‘Advocacy or litigation services’ would have most likely been provided by the time the CFA was entered. This scenario would therefore be safe from the argument.

It is widely reported that fixed costs for all fast track work and low level multi-track work will be introduced in October 2018. Those who draft the rules as to implementation need to do so carefully as otherwise arguments and satellite litigation will take place.

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

 

Proportionality – a common sense decision from Master Rowley

In the case of BNM v MGN Limited [2016] EWHC B13 (costs) the Senior Costs Judge applied the new test of proportionality to post Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) additional liabilities. The claim was for defamation and therefore the additional liabilities (despite being incurred post 1 April 2013) were recoverable inter partes (additional liabilities for defamation and mesothelioma cases remain recoverable inter partes post LASPO).

In BNM the Senior Costs Judge based his decision on the fact that pursuant to CPR 44.3(7) the old test of proportionality was not preserved for additional liabilities incurred post 1 April 2013. The key paragraphs from BNM on this point are as follows:

28 – It seems to me that the intention was that the rules as to the recoverability of additional liabilities would be preserved in relation to those additional liabilities which remain recoverable after 1 April 2013. However, the old test of proportionality was not preserved in relation to those additional liabilities. Had that been intended it could have been achieved quite easily by a further exception in CPR 44.3(7).

31 – A consequence of the reduction of the base costs to a proportionate figure will be that the success fee, a percentage of those base costs, also reduces. It would be absurd and unworkable to apply the new test of proportionality to the base costs, but the old test of proportionality to the success fee.

32 – Ring fencing and excluding additional liabilities from the new test of proportionality would be a significant hindrance on the court’s ability to comply with its obligation under CPR 44.3(2)(a) to allow only those costs which are proportionate.

In the case of King v Basildon & Thurrock University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust [2016] EWHC B32 (Costs) Master Rowley reached a difference conclusion, albeit the additional liabilities in this care were incurred pre 1 April 2013 i.e. pre LASPO. Master Rowley’s decision was primarily based on the definition of costs in the CPR post 1 April 2013. The useful paragraphs of Master Rowley’s judgment to consider are as follows:

23 – The key phrase in the new proportionality test in 44.3 (5) states that “costs incurred are proportionate if they bear a reasonable relationship to ….”. The word “costs” as now defined refers to profit costs and disbursements but does not include additional liabilities. Given that the proportionality test in 44.3 (5) only applies to work carried out since that definition of costs has come into being, the obvious interpretation is that it only relates to the base costs of a CFA. It is not clear to me why additional liabilities should necessarily be caught by a test which is based on a definition recast specifically to exclude such liabilities.

24 – In my view, treating the word “costs” as only referring to base costs fits in with the provisions of Part 3 in relation to costs budgeting which were also brought into the CPR in April 2013. For example, in rule 3.15 the court “may manage costs to be incurred by any party in any proceedings” and in doing so will make a costs management order. Such an order will record the extent to which budgets are agreed between the parties and, to the extent they are not agreed, will record the court’s approval after making appropriate revisions. “The court will thereafter control the parties’ budgets in respect of recoverable costs”. Precedent H, which sets out the costs to be managed, expressly excludes any additional liabilities that may still be recoverable between the parties. Consequently, the only interpretation of the recoverable costs which the costs management order is controlling, is that they are the base costs of a CFA as set out in the Precedent H. The court is required to set a budget which is specifically described as allowing reasonable and proportionate costs notwithstanding that it excludes additional liabilities.

25 – In my judgment, being consistent with the costs management arrangements and avoiding bizarre outcomes in bills which involve both proportionality tests, point towards the rules being interpreted as continuing to require the court to assess the base costs and additional liabilities separately.

 26 – Furthermore, the purpose of the Jackson reforms in initiating a sea change could have resulted in Parliament disallowing the recoverability of success fee and ATE premiums from 1 April 2013. But it did not do so and has allowed for the run-off of recoverable success fees and premiums in the main and the continued recoverability of success fees or premiums in particular instances. It seems to me that the fact that additional liabilities are still allowed for by the provisions of CPR rule 48.1 simply means that they remain in existence. It does not mean that they have to be assessed in the aggregate with the base fees using a test which has no recognition of additional liabilities. This is particularly so when aggregation will render those additional liabilities effectively irrecoverable in practice”.

The approach of Master Rowley has recently been followed by Master Brown in the case of Murrells, Estate of v Cambridge University NHS Foundation Trust [2017] EWHC B2 (Costs).

The following are useful extracts from the Judgment:

33(7) – …It seems likely that they will have entered into such arrangements in the reasonable expectation that the additional liabilities would continue to be recoverable as they were pre-LASPO. To apply the new test to additional liabilities in the way contended for would, however, require many litigants to submit to a substantial, if not complete, disallowance of their additional liabilities as against the other party or parties to the litigation, while at the same time the liability to pay an insurer or the lawyers the additional liability would be preserved. If that were right, it would inevitably lead to many litigants, including – it might be observed – victims of mesothelioma, having to give up deserving claims or defences. I agree with Master Rowley: in these circumstances, the defendant’s contention cannot be reconciled with transitional provisions and the clear will of Parliament. The intention must have been to provide, at the very least, an orderly retreat from the old funding scheme.

34 – In the circumstances, I respectfully disagree with the decision of Master Gordon-Saker in BNM as to the application of the new proportionality test to additional liabilities and therefore also as to the need to aggregate base costs with additional liabilities.

The case of BNM is currently on its way to the Court of Appeal, with a hearing date expected for October 2017. Hopefully, this will bring some clarity to the position, but until then expect lots of costs litigation over the point. Hopefully, the Court of Appeal will not simply address the additional liabilities in BNM, but also address the position of pre-LASPO additional liabilities in the context of the King case.

Personally, I think the position adopted by the Senior Costs Judge represents a drafting error in relation to CPR 44.3(7). The intention of LASPO in my view was very clear:

  1. Additional liability incepted pre 1 April 2013 = recoverable inter partes and not subject to the new test of proportionality
  2. Additional liability incepted post 1 April 2013 = not recoverable inter partes
  3. Additional liability (defamation and mesothelioma cases) incepted post 1 April 2013 = recoverable inter partes and not subject to new test of proportionality

Surely, it was never the intention for additional liabilities at 1 and 3 above to be recoverable only for them to be crippled by the new test of proportionality (resulting in a non-recovery)?  Surely, it was never the intention to specifically ‘carve out’ defamation and mesothelioma claims only for the additional liabilities to then be squashed on detailed assessment due to the new test of proportionality? This is particularly relevant in defamation cases where costs can easily dwarf damages.

What all this does show is the problems that can be caused when even minor changes are made to the CPR. I say this in the context of a significant extension of fixed costs on the horizon. There are fixed costs disputes every day at the moment in relation to portal cases and fast track injury cases where the numbers in dispute are very small. Where the numbers in dispute are large i.e. in multi-track fixed costs cases then this will undoubtedly cause satellite litigation, for example arguments about location, what stage the case settled and disbursements.

LJ Jackson thinks that fixed costs will bring certainly, but if Defendants (paying parties) are prepared to exploit a ‘gap in the rules’ as highlighted in the BNM case then expect Costs War 2 post implementation of fixed fees! The Courts are going to be busier than ever, which would be contrary to what LJ Jackson and the governments wants.

LJ Jackson maybe about to score an ‘own goal’ with his planned extension of fixed fees……

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