I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like this. It raises some massive points of financial implications for solicitors, particularly when agreeing to take on a case involving medical or police disclosure. It places on them a financial risk that might very well not be worth taking, given the narrow margins on which businesses are currently operating. The Judge did not, it seems to me, take proper account of the public policy implications of this decision.
A public law case was listed for a 2 day finding of fact hearing. The Local Authority had been ordered to obtain police and medical disclosure. It appeared that some things which clearly by close reading of other documents were known to exist within the police possession had not found their way into police disclosure. When this came to light, the hearing had to be adjourned.
The Court then embarked on an exercise to see who was responsible and considered the making of costs orders.
Re L (Case Management : Wasted Costs) 2016
What makes it quite remarkable is that in most wasted costs cases what happens is that one side is assessed to be responsible for the mix-up or failure, and the other parties get their costs paid by them. Here, the Judge determined that whilst the Local Authority was chiefly to blame, all of the parties had to bear some of the blame.
Non-compliance with case management directions – who is at fault?
- In this case, 1 FLR 1092 case management orders were made promptly (on day 14) for the disclosure of medical records and police records. The medical records were disclosed promptly save for the photographs. The failure to disclose the medical photographs was not identified by any party until 20th January 2016.
- The police responded promptly to the disclosure order but failed to disclose the audio recordings of the parents’ police interviews. The first approach to the police for ‘further disclosure’ was made by the local authority on 14th October. The first time the lack of this material was raised by any other party was in an e-mail from the mother’s solicitor to the local authority on 2nd November.
- Who is responsible for these failings? Is the failure to disclose the medical photographs the responsibility of the hospital or of the local authority for not going back to the hospital to ask where the photographs were, or of the other parties for not raising this issue either with the local authority or with the court? Is the failure to disclose the audio recordings of the parents’ police interviews the responsibility of Leicestershire Police (who were ordered by the court to disclose ‘witness statements, interviews, photographs and medical reports in respect of the injuries’), or of the local authority (to whom the police were ordered to make disclosure and upon whom was laid the obligation of disclosing the police material to the other parties), or of the other parties for their delay in raising this issue either with the local authority or with the court?
- Leicestershire police were ordered to make disclosure to the local authority. The local authority was ordered to disclose to the other parties the material received from the police. It was also ordered to obtain and disclose medical records. Is the scope of the local authority’s duty limited to forwarding on to the other parties the material received from the police and the hospital? In my judgment, it is not so limited. The local authority is not providing a postal service. It is under a duty not only to disclose what it receives but also,
(a) to consider with care the material received from the police and hospital;
(b) to satisfy itself that the disclosure complies with the terms of the relevant case management direction; if it does not comply then,
(c) to identify any documents or categories of document that appear to have been omitted;
(d) to contact the police/hospital promptly seeking immediate disclosure of the missing documents; and if disclosure of the missing documents is not made promptly then,
(e) to inform the court and seek urgent directions; and
(f) to keep the other parties informed.
- Whilst the primary duty for obtaining and disclosing police and medical records rests with the local authority, it is clear from the rules to which I have referred that the other parties also have a responsibility. They, too, are under a duty to assist the court in the process of active case management and to inform the court of any non-compliance. With respect to police and medical disclosure there is a duty,
(a) to consider with care the material disclosed by the local authority;
(b) to satisfy itself that the disclosure complies with the terms of any case management direction relating to that disclosure;
(c) to identify any documents or categories of document that appear to have been omitted;
(d) to inform the local authority promptly with respect to any gaps in the disclosure; and, if the missing documents are not provided promptly,
(e) to inform the court and seek urgent directions.
- In my judgment it is clear from the rules and authorities to which I have referred that these duties exist. They are a necessary part of the process of enabling and assisting the court to comply with its duties to further the overriding objective and to complete care cases within 26 weeks.
- In the circumstances of this case I am satisfied that the responsibility for the failure identified rests primarily with the local authority. However, I am equally satisfied that the solicitors for the parents and the guardian also bear some responsibility.
Well, that’s all lovely in an ideal world, but do solicitors have the time to inspect each and every document with a fine-toothed comb, particularly in a case where counsel are instructed? They certainly don’t get paid for such a task.
So what happens then? Well, one sensible approach would be for the LA to pay some of the costs but not all of them, given that there were failings on the part of the other parties. That’s not what happened here.
The Court was actually considering punishing the solicitors involved by disallowing a share of their costs. The Legal Aid Agency were strongly suggesting that this was not a power open to the Court unless they were carrying out their function of assessing the public funding certificates by way of taxation (which would come at the end of the case)
Disallowing costs payable to a legally aided solicitor
- Navigating one’s way around the labyrinthine complexities of the current legal aid scheme is a significant challenge. For present purposes it is necessary to have regard to the Legal Aid Agency’s Standard Civil Contract 2013 specification: General Rules (section 1-6) (July 2015 amendment), to the Standard Civil Contract 2013 specification: Family category specific rules (section 7) (July 2015 amendment), to the Civil Legal Aid (Remuneration) Regulations 2013 and to the Civil Legal Aid (Remuneration) (Amendment) (No2) Regulations 2014.
- The solicitors for the legally aided parties contend that disallowing part of a standard fee payable to a legally aided solicitor pursuant to the provisions of s.51(6) is not simply inappropriate but that it is not possible. The basis of that submission is that the standard fee for legal representation is a fixed fee payable irrespective of the amount of work undertaken (subject to the right to ‘escape’ from the standard fee to which I referred earlier). It follows, therefore, as a matter both of logic and of law, that so far as concerns the costs of any solicitor entitled only to the standard fee there cannot have been any ‘wasted costs’. In this case, even if a solicitor entitled only to the standard fee undertook work on 20th, 21st and 22nd January which would not have been necessary had the failure of police disclosure been identified at the time it arose, that solicitor will receive no extra payment for that work but will simply receive the fixed fee to which he or she would in any event have been entitled. A letter to the court from the LAA supports that argument,
- The position would appear to be different so far as concerns the costs of a solicitor who ‘escapes’ the standard fee. As I noted earlier, that solicitor is entitled to be paid for the work undertaken on an hourly rate basis (the hourly rate being that prescribed in the Civil Legal Aid (Remuneration) Regulations 2013 as amended). In those circumstances it is clear that the argument set out in the previous paragraph does not apply. Even if the court does not have the power to make a wasted costs order against a solicitor entitled only to the standard fee (a proposition about which I am doubtful) there would seem to be no reason why the court could not make a wasted costs order against a solicitor who ‘escapes’ the standard fee.
- However, the LAA raises a second issue and that relates to its power to act on an order made by the court under s.51(6) disallowing all or part of a legally aided solicitor’s entitlement to remuneration. In its letter to the court, the LAA asserts that,
‘The court could only disallow a solicitor’s costs under their contract with the LAA where the court is performing a detailed assessment pursuant to that contract (see paragraphs 6.37 – 6.38 of the Standard Contract Specification…) However, you could make observations to help the assessing authority (whether that is the LAA or the Court) in its assessment.
‘Where legally aided work falls under one of the Standard Fee Schemes, the LAA usually would have no choice but to pay the standard fees, unless the claim is not true, accurate and reasonable. The nature of the standard fee scheme is that in some circumstances a legal aid provider may receive a relatively high payment for not necessarily doing a large amount of work, whilst in the circumstances of a different case, the same standard fee may be considered to be relatively low. However, if you do make any observations on the amount of costs claimed and suggest that some costs should be disallowed, the possibilities, within the fixed fee scheme would be as follows:
1. Claims can ‘escape’ the fixed fee where, if paid at hourly rates the solicitors would be paid more (i.e. for Legal Representation, where costs on an Hourly Rate basis would exceed twice the Standard Fee, the solicitors would be paid at hourly rates). If in the circumstances of this case the solicitors have escaped the fixed fee and are to be paid at hourly rates, any disallowance (or recommended disallowance) of costs on assessment could reduce the amount payable to the solicitors;
2. The costs of the case can be disallowed in full, which would lead to a nil payment to the provider irrespective of the fixed fee scheme;
3. If the solicitors have breached some term of the contract, such as the requirement to carry out all contract work in a timely manner and with all skill and care, and as a result caused the LAA a loss (for example if a further hearing were required because of the solicitor’s default which has led the LAA to make further payments), then the LAA could set off the loss it has been caused against any payment due to the solicitors (i.e. the fixed fee they would be due to receive)’
6.37 Except where:
(a) it is or may be necessary for the court to carry out a detailed assessment of costs payable to the Client by another party to the proceedings; or
(b) having regard to interests of the Client and public funds, the weight or complexity of the case and all the other circumstances, we consider it appropriate to direct that the costs be subject to detailed assessment,
your Claim for payment for Licensed Work will be assessed by us.
6.38 A direction under Paragraph 6.37(b) may relate to an individual case or to any class of case, identified by the level of costs to be assessed or otherwise. In cases where costs are to be subject to assessment by the court, detailed assessment proceedings must be commenced within the time specified in the Civil Procedure Rules.
- If the LAA’s submissions are correct then that would seem to represent a significant narrowing of the scope of s.51(6) in a case involving a legally aided solicitor. It would mean that although under s.51(6) the court could order a legally aided party’s solicitor to pay another party’s wasted costs, the court would have no power to disallow any wasted costs incurred by that same solicitor.
- I note that neither the Standard Civil Contract 2013 specification: General Rules (section 1-6) (July 2015 amendment), or the Standard Civil Contract 2013 specification: Family category specific rules (section 7) (July 2015 amendment) refer to the court’s powers under s.51(6). With all due respect to the LAA, it seems to me that the key to understanding paragraphs 6.37 and 6.38 of the Standard Contract Specification is to be found in the heading: ‘Court assessment’. Those paragraphs deal with the question ‘who should assess my costs’. Section 51(6) addresses a completely different issue. Section 51(6) provides a power to penalise a solicitor as a result of whose conduct ‘wasted costs’ are incurred (whether another party’s costs or his/her own costs).
- It is my preliminary view that the court’s power to make a wasted costs order is not confined in the way suggested by the legally aided solicitors and by the LAA. However, I am satisfied that in this case it is possible to dispose of the wasted costs issue without determining those points. That said, in my judgment the LAA’s arguments do raise important issues which need to be authoritatively addressed.
This disallowing of costs to a publicly funded solicitor can easily move a case from barely profitable to making a loss for the firm. Not to mention the absolute headache with the Legal Aid Agency in recovering the money. Does anyone actually benefit from this at all? Haven’t we just spent a huge amount of money arguing about this issue? Not to mention any costs of a potential appeal, given the wider implications for solicitors across the country?
In a concluding paragraph, the Judge bemoans the increase in demand by additional care proceedings on the Court service and that no additional resources have been provided, whilst ignoring that the very same thing applies to all of the other parties to the case.
- Statistics show that in recent months, nationally there has been a significant increase in the number of new care proceedings issued. Cafcass statistics show that over the ten months from 1st April 2015 to 31st January 2016 the number of new care proceedings issued was up by almost 13% on the previous year. During that same period The Family Court in Leicester experienced a 39% increase in new care cases – three times the national average. That increase in workload has not been matched by any increase in court resources. I make that point simply to underline the fact that court time is a precious resource. The court can ill-afford contested hearings being vacated because of the failure of one or more of the parties to comply adequately with the obligations placed upon them by the rules and by case management orders made by the court.
- In this case I am satisfied that the solicitors for all four parties are responsible for the errors identified. All four were responsible for the wasting of court time and for the wasting of costs. I have identified wasted advocacy costs incurred by the legally aided parties amounting to £5000. I shall make a wasted costs order against the local authority requiring it to pay 50% of that sum, £2,500. I have also identified that the local authority has incurred wasted advocacy costs of £1950. I shall make wasted costs orders against the solicitors for the legally aided parties jointly to pay 50% of those costs (£975 i.e. £325 per solicitor).
Of course there were failings here, and it would have been markedly better had the Local Authority involved raised with the Court and the parties their concerns that the police disclosure was incomplete and missing important documents. Was this, however, a proportionate response to the difficulty? I am sure that all lawyers have experience of arriving at Court for a final hearing with time and money spent in preparing a case only to find that the case is double-listed or insufficient time is available – the parties in those cases – of which there were very very many, did not attempt to demand that the Court Service pay their wasted costs.
I note that the Judge here refers to the Norgrove report on Family Justice. Perhaps it is useful to bear in mind this passage of the report.
[I would also deprecate the habit in this judgment of the use of (sic) for what are clearly utterly minor typographical errors in emails sent by the Local Authority – emails are documents which are typed in haste, particularly when trying urgently and desperately to resolve a pressing problem and (sic) is an uncalled for dig. I also note that the Judge did not apply the same (sic) standard to emails received from counsel, which had similar minor typographical errors. I also note that this case was listed for a fact finding hearing despite the allegations being substantially short of the Court of Appeal guidance as to when a separate fact finding hearing should be heard…]