Tranter v Hansons (Wordsley) Ltd – Duty to investigate BTE

Under the, now revoked, CFA Regulations 2000 there was a duty to advise a client whether the legal representative considered that the client was insured under an existing contract of insurance (BTE) before the CFA was entered into (Regulation 4(2)(c)). Failure to do this would render the CFA invalid.

Since the Court of Appeal decision in Sarwar v Alam [2001] EWCA Civ 1401, if not before, it has been common knowledge that motor policies commonly contained BTE cover available for the benefit of passengers, even if the potential claim is against the insured driver. Therefore, failure to consider whether a passenger may have the benefit of BTE cover available through the defendant driver may amount to a breach of the Regulations.

A subtle variation of this issue arises where the claimant was a passenger on a bus and the accident was caused by the negligence of the bus driver. It has been common, for a number of years, for such BTE cover to also be attached to bus companies’ motor insurance.

There have now been a number of decisions covering this issue and exploring whether a failure to make appropriate enquiries of the defendant bus company as to whether such cover was available would invalidate the CFA.

In Cochrane v Chauffeurs of Birmingham (Central London CC) 22/6/07, Donaldson v Four Square Coach Company (Huddersfield CC) 11/6/07 and Robinson v Doselle (Milton Keynes CC) 19/12/05 the courts held on each occasion that there had been a material breach of the Regulations.

The one case that went against the flow was the decision of Master Rogers in Dole v ECT Recycling Ltd [2007] EWHC 90086 (Costs). In that case the Claimant’s solicitors put forward witness evidence that stated: “I confirm that as at the date when the CFA was signed in this case (15/07/2004) it was not common knowledge that the bus companies would have been covered by Before the Event Legal Expenses insurance which would have been available for passengers to sue the bus company for the negligent driving of its own drivers”. The Defendant did not put forward any evidence to counter this claim. Master Rogers held: “I accept the clear conclusion from Mr Bennett’s uncontradicted evidence that the state of knowledge of solicitors specialising in this field in the summer of 2004 was not that the defendants to a claim of this nature might have passenger cover, and in particular that such cover would be dealt with independently of any claim made against them by the passenger.” He therefore concluded that the reasonable enquiries that a solicitor was expected to undertake would not have extended to considering whether BTE cover was available in this situation as they would not have known such cover might be available.

The latest decision on this issue is that of Tranter v Hansons (Wordsley) Ltd [2009] EWHC 90145 (Costs). The Claimant’s solicitors produced a witness statement that stated: “I confirm that as at the date when the CFA was signed in this case (14/04/05) and based on my experience in the personal injury field, it was not common knowledge in the industry that a bus company would have applied Legal Expenses Insurance to the passengers on a bus to sue itself”.

Master Wright nevertheless concluded: “In my judgment the Defendant has raised a genuine issue and I consider that the Claimant’s solicitors in this case have failed to comply with Regulation 4(2)(c) of the CFA Regulations 2000. Whether or not it was common knowledge in the industry at the date the conditional fee agreement was signed that a bus company would have applied legal expenses insurance to the passengers on a bus to sue itself, it certainly was common knowledge that motor insurance policies frequently provide insurance cover for passengers to enable them to sue the driver. This is clear from Sarwar v Alam where the judgment of the Court of Appeal was given in 2001. In my judgment there is no justification for making a distinction between private motor insurance policies and insurance policies taken out by the operators of public vehicles such as buses. … In the present case the Claimant’s solicitors knew (or ought to have known because of the Court of Appeal’s decision in Sarwar) that private motor insurance policies often contained provisions which protect passengers. They ought also to have anticipated that in the case of public vehicles (such as buses) there could be similar provisions in the insurance policies taken out by the operators of such vehicles. They should have taken reasonable steps (a letter or two would have sufficed) to enquire. However they did not do this”.

The CFA was therefore held to be invalid.

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