Jackson Costs Review – Part 4 – Legal Expense Insurance and Success Fees

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Lord Justice Jackson’s Preliminary Report on Civil Litigation Costs reaches a “tentative conclusion” that: “It seems to me to be in the public interest to promote a substantial extension of BTE insurance, especially insurance in the category BTE1 [Before-the-Event legal expense insurance where insurers pay solicitors to act for the insured when a claim arises]. The cost of litigation in any year by the few insured who need to bring or defend claims will then be born by the many who do not”. The Report records the Bar’s CLAF Group proposal that BTE insurance should be compulsory for motorists (to cover themselves and anyone they may injure), employers and occupiers of buildings (again to cover themselves, employees, visitors or customers). Jackson LJ states that this proposal “merits serious consideration”. The impact of such a proposal if implemented would be, by implication, to largely kill off CFAs and ATE insurers.

In a previous posting I wrote on the subject of Jackson LJ’s proposals for ending two-way costs shifting and moving to one-way costs shifting, at least for personal injury work. The Report comments: “It is, however, worth noting that if cost shifting against claimants were to be abolished, the main purpose of ATE insurance premiums would also disappear”.

Jackson LJ’s expresses the view: “If any layer of activity can be removed from the process (and insurance against adverse costs liability is one layer of activity), it may be thought that this will serve the public interest”. ATE insurers have previously been very successful in lobbying to protect their place in the current costs system. They may well have their work cut out now to maintain the status quo.

Even if costs shifting were to remain unaltered, Jackson LJ nevertheless is considering: “whether success fees and ATE premiums should continue to be recoverable under costs orders”. This would potentially return the position to the pre-April 2000 one where any success fee or ATE premium was payable out of the claimant’s damages. One option that Jackson LJ seems to be considering, and for which he asked for further assistance at the Sweet and Maxwell Conditional Fee Agreement Conference in May, is whether to increase damages to a level that enables a return to the 25% cap on the amount of damages that solicitors can take from their client’s damages, so that claimants would be no worse off than under the current system.

Costs assessment not a "trial"

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The ingenuity of parties to litigation when it comes to arguments over legal costs knows no limits.

The fixed success fee regime which applies to new RTAs allows solicitors a success fee of 12.5% if “the claim concludes before a trial has commenced or the dispute is settled before a claim is issued” or 100% “where the claim concludes at trial”. The same rules, but with different figures, apply to new EL and EL disease cases. A “trial” is defined as being “the final contested hearing or the contested hearing of any issue ordered to be tried separately”.

Some claimant solicitors seeking to maximize their success fees have sought to argue that if a matter proceeds to assessment of the costs then that is a “trial” and their costs therefore attract the 100% success fee even if the substantive claim settles pre-trial. This was the situation that arose in the case of Thenga v Quinn [2009] EWCA Civ 151 (Lawtel link). Judgment was entered in default for the claimant. The matter was listed for an assessment of damages hearing but quantum was agreed before the hearing and the defendant agreed to pay the claimant’s costs. The matter was proceeding in Bury County Court where a practice has apparently developed of cases not being removed from the list but remaining listed to enable a summary assessment to take place. (Considerable doubt was expressed by Lord Justice Wilson as to the appropriateness of this practice given summary assessment is only meant to be conducted by a judge who has heard the actual case.) The case therefore proceeded to a summary assessment where the judge at first instance was persuaded that this therefore amounted to a “final contested hearing” and a 100% success fee applied.

On appeal, the circuit judge disagreed with this conclusion and held that the summary assessment was not part of the “final contested hearing”, the claim had been settled before a trial had commenced and the success fee was limited to 12.5%. Lord Justice Wilson, refusing permission to appeal, agreed with the circuit judge and concluded that it was clear that “final contested hearing” relates to the substantive claim (although would include a disputed hearing as to whether to award a party costs in principle).

This is a sensible decision which slaps down at least one of the perverse outcomes the fixed success fee regime had potentially thrown up.

Hourly Rates and the RPI

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The constant refrain from claimant representatives whenever a paying party seeks to question the accuracy of a bill of costs is that one should not seek to go behind the signature to the bill unless there is a “genuine issue” as to whether the bill is accurate, and the case of Bailey v IBC Vehicles Ltd [1998] EWCACiv 566 is cited in support. I’ll save for another day a full scale rant as to how misplaced the Bailey approach is.

However, one simple example of how naive the Bailey decision is can been seen on a daily basis following the routine disclosure of CFAs. I’m not now talking about whether the solicitor really has managed to comply with the onerous requirements of the now revoked CFA Regulations 2000. The issue I have in mind is the rather more straightforward one of the hourly rates claimed. A CFA will usually set out the hourly rates that are to be charged. However, the rates claimed in the corresponding bill often bear no relationship to the rates allowed for in the CFA itself. At its most basic, this is often an example of bills being signed without the slightest concern for accuracy or the indemnity principle. I don’t trust signatures on bills due to years of experience in the costs world.

A more subtle issue arises in relation to increases in the hourly rate. A common clause in many CFAs, and this follows one version of the Law Society’s Model CFA wording, is: “We will not increase the rate by more than the rise in the Retail Prices Index”. Despite this clear and unambiguous wording, bills are routinely presented where the hourly rates increases year-on-year by more than the RPI increase. When challenged, the response from some claimants is that they wrote to the client informing them of the purported increase and because the client did not challenge the RPI busting increase it is therefore binding on the client and can be recovered from the paying party. Not so said the Senior Costs Judge in Findley v Jones and MIB [2009] EWHC 90130 (Costs) (reaching the same conclusion as the judge in Puksis v Brumby [2008] EWHC 90095 (Costs)). Any increase allowable is limited to the rise in the RPI given the clear terms of such CFAs.

And this brings us on to a very topical issue. In recent years the increases in the Guideline Hourly Rates have been based on the Average Earnings Index for private sector service industries. This has tended to have a higher annual increase than the RPI, hence the problem created by the RPI clause. But now for the latest news. It has just been reported that that the RPI fell to 0% in February. If the RPI remains at this level, or even dips into negative territory, those firms who have the RPI clause will be unable to increase the hourly rates on any of their cases, regardless of whether the Guideline Hourly Rates increase. The only consolation to claimant lawyers is that these are not “tracker” clauses, otherwise firms would potentially be finding themselves having to reduce their rates in coming months. Defendant lawyers have been used to this prospect for years but this would come as something of a shock to the system for claimant lawyers.

"NHS leeches"

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Although The Legal Costs Blog is unashamedly defendant biased, and always ready to have a go at claimant lawyers, even we were somewhat taken back by the attack launched on claimant clinical negligence lawyers in yesterday’s Sunday Times.

One article was headed “Lawyers use NHS as £100m cash cow” and another “Lawyers get m0re than victims in NHS compensation scandal“. The leading article ran with the headline “Taking a knife to the NHS leeches“. The source of this fury seems to have been The NHSLA submission to civil litigation costs review.

The NHSLA paper states that “the whole costs structure is indefensibly expensive in relation to the compensation awarded or agreed”. It highlights the large discrepancies between the amounts charged by defendant and claimant lawyers in clinical negligence cases and claims that “claimant legal costs are more than double the defendant legal costs on average and that the gap … has been widening over recent years”.

The impact of CFAs is particularly criticised, with it being claimed that “they are effectively a means of claimant lawyers virtually doubling their profit costs having cherry-picked their cases”. It also claims that the effect of CFAs is to produce hourly rates of potentially over £800 an hour.

The papers makes a number of proposals for reform including the introduction of routine costs capping orders and fixed staged success fees.

The NHSLA’s submission paper is for the benefit of Lord Justice Jacson’s ongoing review of the current costs system. It appears that it is now being generally accepted that he really has neither ruled anything in nor ruled anything out. We can now start to expect a growing number of similar submissions from various interested parties trying to influence his thinking.

The Sunday Times leading article concluded: “The NHS Litigation Authority is right. We need to reform this process and end the party for lawyers.” It is fair to say that the Sunday Times is not an entirely uninterested party. The Ministry of Justice is currently engaged in the Controlling costs in defamation proceedings consultation. The press has been attempting to limit CFA funded costs in such claims and a general attack on claimant lawyers’ fees will do no harm to that cause.

It might be thought that the Jackson review is coming rather late in the day. Given the damp squib that, so far as costs proposals went, emerged from the Ministry of Justice’s Response on the new claims process it seemed that the current government had no real appetite for a major shake-up of the current costs system. However, the Sunday Times quoted Mark Simmonds, the shadow health minister as saying: “It is unacceptable in some cases that the legal fees are many times higher than the awarded damages”. With there being every chance of a new government next year, anything now looks possible.

Just as costs draftsmen and other costs professionals were beginning to think there might be some stability emerging, it now looks as if we are in for another period of uncertainty.

Signatures to CFAs

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In a previous post I commented on the fact that Cook on Costs 2009 is wrong when it says: "With the removal of the [CFA] Regulations [2000] from 1 November 2005 a CFA needs only to be in writing and signed…".

As confirmed by Senior Costs Judge Master Hurst, in Findley v Jones and MIB [2009] EWHC 90130 (Costs): "As things stand at the moment there is no need for a CFA to be signed by the client. As at 4 May 2004 the CFA Regulations 2000 did require such a signature". The same view was expressed in Birmingham City Council v Forde [2009] EWHC 12 (QB).

The requirement for a CFA to be signed by the client and the legal representative disappeared with the revocation of the Regulations. However, what is the consequence if a pre-November 2005 was not signed? It will obviously be a breach of the Regulations but is it a material breach such as to render the agreement unenforceable?

In Fenton v Holmes [2007] EWHC 2476 (Ch) the Court was faced with a CFA document which had been signed by both the solicitor and client. However, the CFA lacked a crucial clause necessary to comply with the Regulations. This clause was contained within a seperate letter sent to the client. This letter was not signed by the client. Mann J found this to be a material breach and the CFA was found to be invalid.

In Preece v Caerphilly CBC (Cardiff CC, 15/8/07, unreported) (Lawtel Link) the CFA had been signed by the client but not by the solicitors. Hickinbottom J held: "I do not suggest for one moment that the solicitor’s signature in this case was omitted for anything other than the most innocent of reasons: but, if a CFA is not signed, then a less scrupulous solicitor may for example seek to enforce his right to be paid his reasonable costs if the client’s claim fails. The signature of the solicitor affords the client some real protection against that possibility, as rare as that hopefully might be in practice". The CFA was held to be invalid.

However, in Findley, Master Hurst decided that the failure of a Litigation Friend to re-sign a CFA previously signed by the Claimant was not a material breach. The facts of this case are so unusual that it is unlikely that much comfort can be taken from this judgment by others who find their CFAs not properly signed.

As a general rule, a CFA entered into before November 2005 that is not signed by the client and the legal representative is likely to be held invalid.

Click image to enlarge:

qc nov 19 96


Cole v News Group – The unread judgment

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Many years ago, when I was studying for my law degree, I was told never to simply rely on the headnote of a law report, but to read the judgment in full. This was for two reasons. Firstly, it was often only by reading the full judgment would one properly understand the decision and the reasoning behind it. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the headnote was sometimes inaccurate and misleading. Of course, at the time, I ignored that advice.

The modern equivalent to that advice is never trust case summaries you have simply read on the internet (this blog included) but to actually read the full judgment yourself.

A perfect example of the problems that arise from not following this advice is the strange case of Cole v News Group Newspapers Ltd (18/10/06, SCCO, unreported). I say “strange” because of the way this case has been reported. The background to the judgment was a libel claim brought by a certain well known footballer. I don’t need to repeat the salacious details of the original story, but I’m sure Ashley would be intrigued to discover this case has become best known in certain circles as a legal costs law authority rather than for the original allegations.

A quick Google search for “Cole v News Group” produces a number of legal websites offering case summaries of this judgment. They all appear to be inaccurate. I say “appear” because the difficulty with this case is it truly does seem to be unreported and is not available on any of the normal resources such as Bailli or Lawtel. This seems to have encouraged a number of individuals to pass on details of this case on a Chinese whispers basis without actually obtaining and reading a copy. Further, a growing number of claimant costs draftsmen routinely quote this case to resist requests for disclosure of CFAs. It may be that the transcript of the case that I have seen is not the final decision and that a further decision exists. If that is the case, and any reader can produce a more recent decision, I will happily write a further post on the subject.

Of the various case summaries that do exist on the internet, three of them refer to this being a decision of Master Haworth in the SCCO. Two of those give the date of the judgment as being February 2007. The third states it is a decision of the Court of Appeal in February 2007. All the summaries seem to suggest that the Court (whichever Court it was) held that a court would not order disclosure of a CFA unless the paying party had first raised a “genuine issue”. I don’t propose in this post to address what the law actually is on that point.

So what did the judgment actually say? I believe the summary in Cook on Costs 2009 provides a true account of the decision (if not the law): “With the removal of the [CFA] Regulations from 1 November 2005 a CFA needs only to be in writing and signed but that did not stop an application for disclosure in Ashely Cole v News Group (2006) Oct 18 SCCO. That application failed simply because no points of dispute had been served hence CPR 47.14 and CPD 40.14 did not apply. No decision was made as to the applicability of Hollins to post 1 November 2005″.

The transcript I have is dated 18 October 2006 (the same as the one quoted in Cook on Costs) and I am therefore proceeding on the basis that it is indeed the only judgment made in this case on that point. Cook on Costs’ summary is accurate. The application was dismissed simply on the basis that it was premature. There is absolutely no mention of “genuine issue” in the judgment, let alone any finding on this point. Indeed, the judgment concludes that when the matter comes back to the Court for the detailed assessment hearing “it may very well be that at that stage a disclosure of the CFA is appropriate”.

So my advice, particularly to any claimant law costs draftsmen reading this blog, is obtain and read the actual judgment in this case before seeking to rely on a decision that does not actually support your position.

I’ll come back to why Cook on Costs was wrong on the law on another day.

Put an end to excessive legal costs says MDU

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The following comes from a Medical Defence Union press release dated 1 February 2009:

In an editorial in its Journal published this week, the MDU, which represents over half of UK doctors, questioned the fairness of Conditional Fee Agreements (CFAs), which account for around 19 per cent of UK medical cases brought against MDU members. It revealed that claimants’ solicitors may demand 50 per cent higher hourly rates than defendants’ solicitors and that the costs awarded in cases brought under CFAs were significantly higher. For example, in the last three years, in those litigated CFA cases where the average damages were £5,000, the average claimants’ costs were more than four times higher at £22,000.

Dr Karen Roberts, MDU medico-legal adviser and Journal Medical Editor said:

“Of course, claimants who have been negligently harmed by their doctor should be compensated, but a system that provides solicitors’ firms with rewards which dwarf the value of a claim needs to be reformed.

“The number of clinical negligence cases the MDU sees is not increasing, but the cost of settling cases is rising by more than the rate of inflation. Legal rulings such as the recent Thompstone Judgment can make a difference, which is particularly dramatic for the NHS because it has so many high-value claims for babies who suffer neurological damage. MDU members’ claims, which arise out of care delivered in the primary and independent sectors, are not affected to the same degree and members will not see a dramatic rise in their subscriptions. However, in common with the NHSLA, we see one of the key inflationary factors as the excessive legal costs awarded to claimants’ solicitors. I t cannot be right that legal firms should continue to receive payments out of all proportion to the amount of damages awarded, particularly when these costs are funded, ultimately by the taxpayer.”

In the Journal editorial, Dr Christine Tomkins, Deputy Chief Executive of the MDU proposed a two-fold approach to addressing the issue of CFA costs. She wrote: “We propose first that the inequities introduced by very high success fees could be addressed by capping the success fees chargeable by claimants’ solicitors in CFA funded negligence cases. Second, we suggest there should be a restriction on the hourly rate of claimants’ solicitors so that they more closely resemble the rates charged by defendants’ solicitors. We are confident that there is now a will to tackle this question … We very much welcome the news that the Master of the Rolls has appointed Lord Justice Jackson to lead a fundamental review of civil costs, commencing in January 2009. We believe that there needs to be a review of the way clinical negligence cases are funded and we look forward to contributing to the review on behalf of members.”

NHS facing £700m negligence bill

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In a time of global recession, some good news for personal injury lawyers and, in due course, law costs draftsmen and other costs professionals in the announcement that clinical negligence payouts by the NHS in England are expected to rise by 80% next year.

The BBC reports that Steve Walker, chief executive of the NHS Litigation Authority, said part of the increase was prompted by a recent ruling in the Court of Appeal – the Thompstone judgment – which changes the way that payments for care are calculated.

He also said the move to more “no win no fee” cases had increased costs “dramatically” because it meant that solicitors were picking their cases carefully.

“The proportion of successful claims has gone up and is rising,” he said.

“Legal practices are businesses and why not try and double your income for the same amount of work.”

Birmingham City Council v Forde

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The recent decision in Birmingham City Council v Forde [2009] EWHC 12 (QB) is a worrying one both for Defendants and for the legal profession generally. This was an appeal to the High Court from a decision of the Supreme Court Costs Office. Unusually, for a case heard in Birmingham District Registry, the Senior Costs Judge Master Hurst sat with the Judge as one of the assessors. The judgment is long and detailed but we will try to summarise the important issues.

The Claimant’s solicitors had entered into a Conditional Fee Agreement (CFA) with the Claimant which did not include a success fee. The CFA was entered into prior to the revocation of the CFA Regulations 2000. Shortly before the conclusion of the claim, the Claimant’s solicitors became concerned as to the validity of their CFA due to challenges that the Defendant local authority had been raising in relation to similar agreements. They therefore entered into a second CFA that purported to cover all work performed, including the work already done under the original CFA. This new CFA sought a success fee of up to 100% if the matter proceeded to trial. The new CFA was entered into after the revocation of the CFA Regulations 2000. A letter was sent to the Claimant together with the CFA which stated that all legal costs to date were to be dealt with under the second agreement unless the Court ruled that the new agreement was invalid, in which case the original CFA would be relied on. The Defendant challenged the validity of the second CFA. On appeal it was held:

• Following Jones v Wrexham Borough Council [2007] EWCA Civ 1356, it was confirmed that the letter formed part of the second CFA.

• There was nothing wrong with seeking to rely on the first CFA in the event that the Court held the second to be invalid.

• There was adequate consideration for the second CFA by virtue of the agreement to continue to act for the Claimant. This was particularly so given the doubt over the validity of the first CFA. The obligation to provide services under the second CFA in place of a potentially unenforceable obligation under the first CFA was consideration for a fresh promise to pay.

• It was permissible, as a matter of general principle, for a CFA to be retrospective (confirming Master Hurst’s decision in King v Telegraph Group Ltd [2005] EWHC 90015 (Costs)).

• It was not, per se, contrary to public policy to allow a retrospective success fee. This contrasted with Master Hurst’s view in King. A court was held to have sufficient power to reduce or disallow success fees that were unreasonable.

• The Judge held that even if he was wrong as to whether it was contrary to public policy to allow a retrospective success fee, it did not follow that the second CFA was invalid. He could “see no reason why the Court cannot place its blue pencil through the success fee provision”.

• Given the above, the second CFA was held to be valid. The Claimant had abandoned any claim for a success fee and the Court therefore did not have to decide what success fee, if any, it would have allowed.

This decision throws up a number of concerns:

• The notion that a solicitor can have a number of “belt and braces” arrangements in place and be able to rely on one if others fail is an uncomfortable proposition. It has generally been accepted that there can be only one retainer in place at any one time in relation to the same matter. This decision would appear to invite solicitors to enter into novel retainers at or beyond the very borderline of enforceability with a second, safer, agreement to fall back on in the event that the other is held to be defective.

• The judge ruled:

“It is material to note that the occasions when a retrospective CFA will be entered into after a CFA without a success fee has already been signed are likely to be limited. If such a CFA already exists the solicitor will be bound by it and is unlikely to need, or be able, to enter into a new retrospective CFA. In the present case it is the fact that the Council challenged the validity of [the first] that provided both the incentive for a new agreement and its justification.”

What is this meant to mean in practice? What does it mean when the Judge says a solicitor would not be “able” to enter into a new retrospective CFA? Would the CFA be defective in that situation and all costs be disallowed? Would the “blue pencil” approach rescue the CFA as a whole but simply strike down the success fee? What if the solicitors were concerned as to the validity of their CFA but no actual challenge had yet been raised by the Defendant, unlike in this matter? In what other circumstances would a solicitor be “able” to enter into a new agreement? This decision raises more questions than it answers.

• The decision that there was nothing wrong with a retrospective success fee in principle is perhaps the most worrying aspect of this judgment. The whole ethos of CFAs is that the solicitor accepts the risk of non-payment of future costs at the time of entering into the agreement and that when it comes to assessing the reasonableness of a success fee the Court will “have regard to the facts and circumstances as they reasonably appeared to the solicitor or counsel when the funding arrangement was entered into”. The Court is not meant to use the benefit of hindsight. This issue was explored by the Court of Appeal in KU v Liverpool City Council [2005] EWCA Civ 475, where it was determined that a Court did not have the power to award different success fees for different periods in a claim where the CFA itself did not provide for the same:

“The approach of the district judge negates the whole purpose of assessing at the outset the risks involved in pursuing a claim. The solicitor did not have the contractual power or the professional duty to do what the district judge suggested, namely to renegotiate the success fee once it became clear that the risks were now very small and that there was no longer any need to fear a ‘worst case scenario’ such as might have been in the solicitor’s mind when the CFA was initially agreed.”

The decision in Forde appears to give Claimant solicitors the right to enter into a retrospective CFA with a success fee, or amend the success fee of an existing CFA retrospectively, with the benefit of hindsight. However, given the clear Court of Appeal decisions on the subject, the Court does not have the power to reduce a success fee applying the benefit of hindsight. Given it can be safely assumed that Claimant solicitors will not voluntarily reduce their success fees if a case becomes less risky, the outcome will inevitably be higher success fees paid by defendants. If a solicitor, for example, set a success fee at 40% for a case that carried some real risks, and 40% was an appropriate figure at that stage, the Court has no power to allow a different success fee at any point in the claim simply because the case becomes much more straightforward at a later point, even if liability is admitted the following day. However, the decision in Forde appears to allow the solicitors to increase the success fee, and potentially recover an increased amount, if the claim becomes more complex. This undermines the whole principle on which CFAs were meant to be based.

• The judgment also ignores the views expressed by Lord Hoffman in Callery v Gray [2002] UKHL 28 as to whether a CFA could be retrospective under the current rules and also the policy issues that were argued in that case. It will be recalled that the Defendants in Callery argued that it was unreasonable to enter into a CFA from the outset and that this should be delayed until a response had been received from the Defendant. Lord Hoffman commented:

“22. Three arguments were given for fixing the success fee at once. The first was that it was a necessary part of a conditional fee agreement and that it was natural for client and solicitors to want to agree at the first opportunity upon the terms of engagement. The client wants to be sure from the beginning that whatever happened he will not have to pay any costs and the solicitor wants to be sure that any work he did will be covered by the agreement and recoverable (in the event of success) from the defendant. The Court of Appeal recorded (at p 2132, para 90) the claimants’ argument:

“The claimant will be concerned [when he first instructs a solicitor] that, by giving instructions…he is not exposing himself to liability for costs. The solicitor for his part will be anxious to offer the claimant services on terms that, whatever the outcome, he will not find himself liable for costs.”

23. I am sure that giving such an assurance is an important selling point… and perhaps under the present rules an immediate conditional fee agreement is the only practical way of achieving it [emphasis added]. In a large-scale study undertaken in 1998 on behalf of the Legal Aid Board Research Unit (Report of the Case Profiling Study Personal Injury Litigation in Practice) Mr Pascoe Pleasence noted (at p. 19) that “it was common for clients to have their initial advice in a free consultation with a solicitor. Often firms used free first consultations as a marketing tool…”. It may therefore be that if a solicitor had to wait until he received an answer to his letter before action before fixing the success fee, he would be willing for marketing purposes to take the risk of not being able to recover from anyone the relatively trivial costs already incurred. On the other hand, it may need a change to the indemnity principle to provide him with the additional incentive of being able to recover those costs from the defendant if the claim succeeds [emphasis added]. These are empirical questions on which it is difficult for judges to form a view.

24. The second argument was that by agreeing to a success fee at the first meeting, the client so to speak insures himself against having to pay a higher one later if his case turns out to be more difficult than at first appeared. … At first sight, therefore, one could say that agreeing an immediate success fee is no more than economically rational behaviour on the part of any client and that the fee should therefore be recoverable as an expense reasonably incurred.”

If it is now being suggested that there is nothing wrong in having retrospective CFAs and retrospective success fees then the whole issue of timing needs to be urgently re-examined. The justification for entering into CFAs at the outset, that was argued for in Callery, disappears if Forde is correct. Further, it cannot be right that this only operates in favour of claimant solicitors who can move success fees upwards if a case becomes more risky but there be no duty on the solicitors, or power of the courts, to lower success fees if a case becomes more simple. Just as some certainty was beginning to enter this difficult area the whole issue appears to be unravelling.

• An unfortunate element of this judgment is how little consideration appears to have been given to the issue of whether there were public policy objections to allowing the second CFA to replace the potentially defective first CFA. The judge seems to have gone no further than considering that there was no inherent objection to a retrospective CFA. This is unfortunate because, we would suggest, there is very clear guidance on the correct public policy approach. When the CFA Regulations 2000 were revoked, such revocation could have been made retrospective so that failure to have complied with the Regulations in a material manner would no longer have the consequence that a pre-November CFA agreement was invalid. However, a decision was clearly taken not to adopt this approach. Indeed, the CFA (Revocation) Regulations 2005 expressly stated that the Regulations would continue to apply to CFAs entered into before 1st November 2005. One of the main reasons why the Regulations were revoked was because of the perceived unfairness in a solicitor losing all their costs as a result of what might be viewed as a mere technical breach. Nevertheless, the decision not to make the revocation retrospective must have been taken with full knowledge and intention that solicitors would not recover costs if a breach had occurred pre-1st November 2005. Further, the Court of Appeal has shown itself willing to find older CFAs invalid since the revocation. Given this, it should be clear that there is already a clear public policy as to the consequences of failing to comply with the Regulations for cases where the Regulations were still in force: non-recovery of costs. The apparent total failure in this judgment to consider whether it could therefore be legitimate to use the device of a retrospective CFA to recover costs that might otherwise be irrecoverable is therefore unfortunate.

A further issue that the judgment considered was the extent to which there is or is not a duty to advise a defendant of the existence of a CFA with a success fee before proceedings are issued. This issue was of particular importance here given notification could obviously not be given of a CFA until the same is entered into. Could it be right for a success fee to be claimed for a period in the claim where a defendant had no knowledge that a CFA was in place (or was to be put in place)? This was one of the factors that persuaded Master Hurst in King that a retrospective success fee could not be recovered. The question of whether there is a duty to notify pre-proceedings is something of a grey area with various conflicting decisions. The judge in Forde appeared to accept that there was no duty to give such notification. However, given the Claimant had withdrawn the claim for a success fee, these observations can probably be treated as being obiter only.

This case might be viewed as simply a pragmatic attempt to allow for a retrospective CFA to replace a potentially invalid one and therefore avoid the perceived injustice of the solicitors losing all their costs. Unfortunately, the decision opens a can of worms that applies with equal force to agreements entered into under post-revocation of the CFA 2000 Regulations.

C v W

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The recent Court of Appeal decision in C v W [2008] EWCA Civ 1459 was concerned with a CFA with a success fee that was entered into after liability had been admitted by the Defendant’s insurers. This judgment, in many respects, follows the earlier decision of Haines v Sarner [2005] EWHC 90009 (Costs), in which Simon Gibbs acted for the Defendant. In relation to Part 36 offers, CFAs normally contain one of the following two clauses:

‘It may be that your opponent makes a Part 36 offer or payment which you reject on our advice, and your claim for damages goes ahead to trial where you recover damages that are less than that offer or payment. If this happens, we will not add our success fee to the basic charges [emphasis added] for the work done after we received notice of the offer or payment.’


‘It may be that your opponent makes a Part 36 offer or payment which you reject on our advice, and your claim for damages goes ahead to trial where you recover damages that are less than that offer or payment. If this happens, we will not claim any costs [emphasis added] for the work done after we received notice of the offer or payment.’

The CFA in C v W contained a variation similar to the second clause. The distinction between these two clauses is crucial. The first one does not put the solicitor at risk in relation to Part 36 offers – they will still be paid their base costs. The second clause does, as failure to beat a Part 36 offer will mean the solicitor recovers nothing from that point onwards.

The judge at first instance allowed a 70% success fee. At the initial appeal this was reduced to 50% but the Defendant appealed again on the basis that the amount was still too high. The Court of Appeal held:

• “In the absence of any evidence that the accident had been caused by anything other than negligence on the part of the driver and in the light of the fact that his insurers had already admitted liability on his behalf, it is difficult to see how Mrs. C could have failed to recover substantial damages given the serious nature of her injuries. Mr. Post submitted that the defendant might have applied to withdraw the admission and contest liability, but that was little more than a theoretical possibility in the absence of some evidence to suggest that the accident occurred without any fault on his part. It follows that the chance of success in this case was very high and the risk of losing correspondingly low – certainly no more than 5% and probably rather less. Applying the ready-reckoner, that would give a basic success fee of at most 5% rather than the 33% calculated by Taylor Vinters.”

• It was wrong to add a further 20% success fee to reflect the size of the claim. “It is probably true in general that high value claims tend to be more complex and to involve a greater amount of work than claims of lower value, but that does not of itself increase the risk of losing. If more work is done the base fees are inevitably higher, but the application of a percentage success fee means that the amount recovered by the solicitor if the claim succeeds is correspondingly greater.”

• The main issue in this case related to the risk of failing to recover part of the solicitors’ fees because of the Part 36 clause. “Given that the CFA was entered into before proceedings had been commenced, that called for an analysis of several contingencies, each of which was difficult to assess individually, and which together made the task almost impossible. They included the chance that a Part 36 offer would be made, the chances that it would be made at an earlier or later stage in the proceedings, the chance that they would advise Mrs. C to reject it, the chance that she would accept their advice and the chance that, having rejected the offer, she would fail to beat it at trial. … The timing of an offer was … potentially of some importance because only fees earned by the solicitors after its rejection would be at risk; fees earned up to that point would be secure. … The task facing Taylor Vinters in May 2001 was to assess, as best they could, the risk of losing part of their fees for reasons of that kind, and then expressing that as a percentage of the total fees likely to be earned to trial.”

• It was wrong to allow a further success fee element to reflect the risk the Claimant might not pursue her case. If that had happened, the solicitors, under the terms of the CFA, would be entitled to look to the Claimant for payment in any event. The solvency of the Claimant was not a factor that the success fee was designed to cover.

• Although calculating the real risk in a case such as this was a difficult task, it did not follow that it was unreasonable to enter into a CFA in this situation.

• “However, given that the risks associated with [the Part 36 clause] are so difficult to assess, it would, perhaps, be worth considering whether it would make sense for solicitors who wish to offer it to include in the CFA a variant of the two-stage success fee discussed in Callery v Gray [2001] EWCA Civ 1117, in the form of a clause giving them the right to review the success fee once an offer to which the clause applies has been made. Both parties would be sufficiently protected against an excessive increase by the right to require a detailed assessment.” In what is otherwise a very carefully considered judgment this is the one worrying aspect. It appears to raise a number of the potential problems identified above in relation to Forde. It is to be hoped that this passage is actually to be interpreted as suggesting a “break clause” in CFAs. An initial success fee would apply to deal with the claim up until the stage liability is resolved. At that point, what is in reality closer to being a second CFA with a different success is agreed that reflects the Part 36 risks at that point. This would be entirely sensible and fair to all parties.

What the judgment almost touched on, but did not actually consider, is whether it is ever permissible to enter into a CFA that does not include a clause putting the solicitors/counsel at risk in relation to Part 36 offers where there has already been judgment on liability entered for the Claimant. Where an admission is made pre-proceedings then it probably is reasonable to have a CFA with a small success fee to reflect the, at least “theoretical”, possibility it might be withdrawn. Lord Justice Moore-Bick, in the leading judgment, stated:

“…I should make it clear that there is nothing unreasonable in my view in entering into a simple CFA at a time when liability has been admitted provided that the parties make a proper assessment of the inevitably much reduced risk of failure.”

What does “simple CFA” mean? Is it meant to refer to one that contains one or other of the Part 36 risk clauses identified above? If the CFA does not contain a clause putting the solicitors/counsel at risk on Part 36 offers, and judgment on liability has already been achieved, what is the risk to the legal representative? They have already achieved a “win” as defined under the terms of a standard CFA and would be entitled to payment of their base costs. Is such an agreement in this situation even lawful? In Arkin v Borchard Lines Ltd [2001] NLJR 970 Coleman J held:

“On the proper construction of [section 58] the only permissible conditional fee agreements are those entered into before it is known whether the condition of success has been satisfied. The provision in section 58(1) that:

‘In this section a ‘conditional fee agreement’ means an agreement in writing between a person providing advocacy or litigation services and his client which – (b) provides for that person’s fees and expenses, or any part of them, to be payable only in specified circumstances’

clearly referred to circumstances which have not eventuated at the time when the agreement is entered into. The legislative purpose of the legalisation of such agreements was to enable those who could not afford to employ the legal profession to present their case on the basis that their obligation for fees and legal charges by their solicitors and counsel would arise only if the proceedings which were yet to be heard had been successfully prosecuted. It was no part of the purpose of the legislation to provide for agreements to pay fees and expenses which were entered into after the successful conduct of the proceedings.”

On this analysis there is a strong argument that a CFA in this situation would be unlawful. In fact, it is quite common to see just such agreements entered into after judgment has been entered. This is particularly so in the case of counsel becoming involved at a later stage of the claim. It appears that counsel routinely enter into CFAs with large success fees without any proper consideration as to what risk they are purporting to accept. The issue of whether this type of agreement is lawful arises regardless of whether the CFA post-dates the revocation of CFA Regulations 2000 or whether the case is of a type which would otherwise attract a fixed success fee.

The alternate view is that despite purporting to be a CFA, it is not possible to enter into such an arrangement where payment of no part of the fees is actually conditional. Therefore, although such an agreement would not be unlawful, it would not be possible to recover a success fee.

GWS have a number of cases where this is a live issue and we will report any relevant decisions in due course.