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“Man of Straw and costs”

Making a costs order in private law proceedings against a man with no ability to pay – the Court of Appeal decision in Re G (Children) 2013

http://familylawhub.co.uk/default.aspx?i=ce3352

Although the appeal was from a decision made by a Court local to me, I have had no involvement of any kind in the case.

The proceedings related to long-running private law proceedings, and the Court findings in relation to father’s conduct were pretty scathing

Within the proceedings he had made very serious but utterly groundless allegations against the mother, which obviously took time to resolve and were unpleasant.  He raised an entirely false allegation of racism against the NYAS worker who prepared a report in the case (raising this only after the report was received and unfavourable to him) , had effectively been using the court proceedings to harass and intimidate the mother, had made groundless complaints about her to the police

in short she considered that the length of the proceedings, and the fact they had been driven to consider matters of detail at every turn, had been caused by the father’s actions and that he was engaged in a course of action designed to manipulate and harass the mother by using the proceedings as his weapon of choice.

 

It is not altogether unsurprising in that context that the father lost his case, and was made subject to a section 91(14) order exercising judicial control over his ability to make further applications.

The Court of Appeal were entirely satisfied that all of this was justified by the findings that the Court had made, having heard the evidence.

The next issue was however, the Judge having made a costs order against the father. The mother was publicly funded, the father acting as a litigant in person, and having no income.

This was the portion of the original judgment dealing with that application.

  • “I am dealing with an application for costs. It is made by the mother against the father for the costs which she has incurred with the benefit of public funding in this protracted litigation which began life in October 2009. Mr Bergin has stressed that this is not an application made with any pleasure by the mother. It is not therefore a vindictive application. But Mr Bergin properly has to be mindful of the public purse, and the Legal Services Commission in funding the mother’s litigation has been put to enormous expense. So I look at what was behind all of this.

73. The father says he should not have to pay anything. He tells me that notwithstanding the judgment, which has come down heavily against him in terms of being untruthful, he maintains that he has told the truth all the way through and has simply wanted to do right by his children and see his children, and he feels that he had not alternative but to bring the application. I reject the father’s submissions about what prompted the litigation. It is almost unbelievable that in August 2009 this father had an order by consent that guaranteed him regular contact with his children. He says he had to apply in October 2009 because had had lost his job and did not have any money. In my judgment, it was not necessary to launch these proceedings. But beyond that the father has used these proceedings as a vehicle for getting at the mother. At every step of the way he has criticized her and has made allegations about her and he has completely disregarded the interests of the children.

74. I am conscious that the father says he is of limited means. He lives in rented accommodation and he is in receipt of statutory benefits. So it may be that any order for costs could never be enforced. But the question of enforceability is separate. I am satisfied that the case brought by the father had absolutely had no merit. The application followed on a compendious order that gave the father everything he wanted bar calling it a shared residence order. In the three years since his application the father has gone out of his way to make spurious allegations which the court and others have had to investigate and he has abused the court process by using it as a vehicle to make the mother feel insecure and vulnerable. I am satisfied that, unusual though it is, an order for costs is entirely appropriate and the order will be that the father shall pay the costs of the mother throughout this application from the date of issue. Those costs are to be subject to a detailed assessment and the question of enforcement of costs will be determined separately.”

And this is what the Court of Appeal say about the judicial determination that a costs order was appropriate

  • 15. It is apparent to me, in reading those paragraphs, that the judge had three basic reasons in mind in making the costs order that she did. First of all, towards the end of paragraph 73, she finds that it was “not necessary to launch these proceedings”. Secondly, she finds that the father has “used these proceedings as a vehicle for getting at the mother.” In the same context, later in paragraph 74, she finds that “he has abused the court process by using it as a vehicle to make the mother feel insecure and vulnerable.” Thirdly, she finds that there was “absolutely no merit” in the case brought by the father. So despite noting, as she does, that he has limited means, lives in rented accommodation, and is in receipt of statutory benefits, and it may be that the order for costs could never be enforced, she nevertheless goes on to make the order that is now the subject of this appeal. Although the judge does not refer to the case-law that I have just made reference to, my reading of her judgment is that it sits plainly within the jurisdiction that Hale LJ described, and which has been endorsed by courts subsequently. This was a finding by the judge that the father had acted unreasonably both in starting the proceedings, but more importantly, in the way he had conducted himself throughout the proceedings. It therefore is plain to me that she, as a matter of law, was justified in considering an order for costs, and I can see no error in her exercise of discretion in deciding to deploy that jurisdiction and make an order in this case.

The issue on which the father appealed was fundamentally the principle of making a costs order against a party with no ability to pay.  Of course, the conclusions that the Judge made at paragraph 74 were that the costs were to be the subject of detailed assessment, and that the issue of enforcement of any costs order was an entirely separate matter to the principle of a costs order being made.  (The fact that the costs order was made did not mean that the Legal Aid Agency would be trying to get the father to make payments out of his benefits, and a consideration of his means would be done at any later stage where the LAA did wish to enforce the order)

The Court of Appeal entirely agreed with the judicial approach

  • 17. Against that background, despite hearing what the father says about the particular incidents, in my view the father cannot succeed in his appeal on the first limb, which is that the judge should not have made an order for costs against him in any event. The second limb in the appeal is that the judge failed to take account of his means and failed to take account of the level of costs that he would be expected to pay. He says, and I readily again accept what he says, that no costs schedule was produced by the lawyers acting for the mother for him to see what it was that he was being asked to pay and for the judge to see what it was he was being asked to pay. He is right to raise that matter with us. He also points out the burden that this costs order would have upon him were it ever to be enforced against him. Given his current means, it would be devastating for him, and he says that he could never get his life back on track if he had to face a bill of this sort. He says that would not only have an impact on him but also, either indirectly or directly, adversely affect his ability to support the children and in other ways that relate to the children’s welfare.

18. Insofar as the absence of a costs schedule is concerned, the judge provided for that circumstance, because her order is plain that there has to be “a detailed assessment of her costs” before the costs order becomes a reality. It therefore is the case that there has to be a process of what in the old days would be called “taxation” of the mother’s costs, adjudicated upon it if necessary, to decide what the reasonable level of costs should be. So the only question is whether we should in some way accept the steer given by Thorpe LJ in granting permission to appeal in requiring the judge’s order to include some phrase such as “not to be enforced without leave”. I am not attracted by that course. The detailed assessment provisions will protect the father from facing a bill which is unreasonable in terms of the elements of the costs schedule itself. The question of enforcement will be for any subsequent court to deal with, on the facts as they then are, as would be the case in any ordinary civil litigation. I therefore do not agree with the view that Thorpe LJ had apparently formed at the permission stage that the judge was in error in not putting in a phrase about enforcement.

19. For the reasons that I have therefore variously given, I consider that the father’s appeal should be dismissed.

So, be warned, egregiously bad litigation conduct which results in hearings and legal costs for the other side can still result in a costs order being made, even where the party is a ‘man of straw’ with no means.  Having no means does not enable the party to engage in bad litigation conduct with impunity.

Whether the order will ever be enforced is another matter, but of course, if the father’s financial circumstances change so that he has means with which to pay the order  (a job, an inheritance, a lottery win or such) the costs order could be legitimately enforced.

So whether you are in the process of advising a person who is carrying on this way that there are risks associated with it, or advising a person on the receiving end of it about the possibility of obtaining a costs order, the case is an important one to be aware of.

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About suesspiciousminds

Law geek, local authority care hack, fascinated by words and quirky information; deeply committed to cheesecake and beer.

3 responses

  1. Of course we could impose stricter regimes of security for costs by way of insurance.

    And we could make the LAA (and the EHRC) pay the costs of the successful and uninsured defendant if they maintained the Claimant.

    And I suppose pigs might fly too.

  2. Isn’t it curious that these arguments for costs aren’t deployed against hostile resident parents who abuse the court process and the inherent weakness therein to prevent contact?

    • No reason why they shouldn’t be used for any case where the resident parent misuses the litigation and makes patently false allegations that hold up contact. In practice, I suspect the reason they are not is threefold – first, this is the first case where you can make costs orders against someone who doesn’t have money NOW, second, you can only recover legal costs so a non-resident parent acting as a litigant in person can’t recover their costs and third just because people didn’t know until now that it was an option. (Certainly for any non-resident parent who is paying privately for their litigation, I would ask about costs – which are still reserved to extremely bad conduct in the proceedings, not run of the mill acrimony)

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