Under the old Conditional Fee Agreement Regulations 2000 a solicitor had a duty, before entering into a CFA, to inform the client “whether the legal representative considers that the client’s risk of incurring liability for costs in respect of the proceedings to which agreement relates is insured against under an existing contract of insurance” (Regulation 4(2)(c)). Failure to comply would generally render the CFA unenforceable (see Myatt v National Coal Board  EWCA Civ 1017).
The CFA Regulations have now been revoked. Does that mean that a powerful weapon has been lost to defendants and that sloppy claimant solicitors can rest easy? Not necessarily. A fascinating decision has recently emerged from the Senior Courts Costs Office that suggests this issue may still be a live one.
The decision in Thomas v Butler and Other T/A Worthingtons Solicitors  EWHC 90153 (Costs) concerned a solicitor/own client assessment but there is no reason to suppose the decision would have been any different if this had been an inter partes assessment. The key issue that arose was whether the solicitors had complied with their duties under the Solicitors Costs Information and Client Care Code 1999 that was in force at the time (and remained in force until 30 June 2007) which states:
“4. Advance costs information – general
The overall costs
(a) The solicitor should give the client the best information possible about the likely overall costs, including a breakdown between fees, VAT and disbursements.
Client’s ability to pay
(j) The solicitor should discuss with the client how and when any costs are met, and consider:
(i) whether the client may be eligible and should apply for legal aid (including advice and assistance);
(ii) whether the client’s liability for their own costs may be covered by insurance;
(iii) whether the client’s liability for another party’s costs may be covered by pre-purchased insurance and, if not, whether it would be advisable for the client’s liability for another party’s costs to be covered by after the event insurance (including in every case where a conditional fee or contingency fee arrangement is proposed); and …”
Having considered the evidence presented, Master Campbell concluded:
“Having considered this course of events revealed by the contemporary documents, I am satisfied that Worthingtons [the Claimant’s solicitors] did not comply with the Code and I reject Mrs Nicholaou’s [the fee earner] evidence that she used her “best attempts to ‘discover’ pre-existing legal expenses insurance, none was identified” as the points of reply contend. Whilst it may be correct that Mrs Nicholaou examined Mr Thomas’ home insurance policy for LEI cover and found none, Mrs Nicholaou knew from the papers she had received from Irwin Mitchell that there was a policy with Lawclub. Accordingly she had a duty under paragraph 4(j) (ii) and (iii) of the Code to explore that policy further.
In breach of the Code, Mrs Nicholaou failed to discuss funding options adequately and compounded the problem by omitting to contact Lawclub.
It follows, for the reasons I have given, that I consider that
‘s costs have been unreasonably incurred in this case. Had Mrs Nicholaou followed the Code correctly and investigated the availability of the Lawclub policy as Mr Thomas had instructed her to do, he would not have been obliged to meet Worthington’s costs out of his own pocket; either the firm would have acted for him under a CFA backed by Lawclub or he would have taken his case elsewhere to another firm which would have done so. Under CPR 44.4(1) the court “will not allow costs which have been unreasonably incurred.” Accordingly, the fees that have been unreasonably incurred must be disallowed and any sums that Mr Thomas has paid to Worthingtons fall to be returned to him with interest.” Worthington
(One odd thing to note about this judgment is that the Code states that certain information “should” be discussed. Not “must”. Master Campbell has previously interpreted “should” as being no more than a recommendation (see Metcalfe v Clipston  EWHC 9005 (Costs) and Cullen v Chopra  EWHC 90093 (Costs). On this occasion he appears to have treated “should” as introducing a mandatory requirement.)
If correct, not only does this decision reintroduce Regulation 4(2)(c) challenges by the back door but throws open a whole host of other challenges for failure to comply with the Code. Although the 1999 Code is no longer in force, similar requirements now appear in the Solicitors’ Code of Conduct 2007.
One should perhaps be cautious about reading too much into this case as it was very fact specific. What was no doubt at the front of Master Campbell’s mind was the fact that the Claimant had given clear instructions that he wished his claim to be dealt with by way of a CFA backed by his legal expenses policy. This was not done.
However, it has been a question that has long troubled legal costs practitioners as to whether switching the consumer protection element from the Regulations to the solicitors’ rules really ended the scope for challenges. As Cook on Costs 2010 puts it:
“It is supremely optimistic to hope that transferring regulation to the SRA will put an end to future costs satellite litigation. If the solicitor contravenes the code of conduct, which has the same statutory force as the revoked regulations, cannot the client still contend that the retainer is unenforceable … thereby enabling the paying party to rely on the indemnity principle to avoid liability for payment?”
Happy days are here again.