Lawyers escape non-party order over client’s claim that sought to recover costs shortfall

Solicitors who acted for a client claiming as damages the fees which the client owed them for work done for him in earlier proceedings should not be ordered to pay costs if it fails, the High Court has ruled.

Lady Justice Rose – sitting on a case she was handling before her elevation to the Court of Appeal – said the lawyers’ interests were not sufficiently different from those they commonly have in litigation to make them a real party to the case.

Willers v Joyce and Ors [2019] EWHC 2183 (Ch) followed an initial, unsuccessful claim (called the Langstone action) brought by the now late businessman Albert Gubay against barrister Peter Willers, with whom he worked for many years.

Mr Willers was awarded costs but, having claimed £3.46m, he accepted a part 36 offer to settle them for £1.45m.

Of the shortfall, nearly £1.1m was attributable to his solicitors, London firm De Cruz Solicitors, and the rest for barristers Hugo Page QC of Blackstone Chambers (£487,000) and Adam Chichester-Clark of 3 Stone Buildings (£453,000). They all acted under conditional fee agreements (CFAs).

Mr Willers then sued Mr Gubay for malicious prosecution and abuse of process. One of the heads of damages he sought was the £2m shortfall in costs.

Rose LJ dismissed the claim last year and ordered Mr Willers to pay costs, which Mr Gubay’s executors put at £1.9m.

Mr Willers failed to make the interim payment on account of costs that was ordered and the executors then successfully applied to add De Cruz and the barristers as defendants for the purposes of costs.

The executors sought the non-party costs orders on the basis that the lawyers were the real parties to the malicious prosecution claim because its principal purpose was to recover their unpaid fees.

They argued that this interest went further “in a significant way” than the interest that any lawyer has in a successful outcome if providing services under a CFA.

Rose LJ said the case law showed that legal representatives should not be at risk of a third-party costs order unless they were acting in some way outside the role of legal representative.

“The key question at the heart of this case is whether the fact that the damages claimed in the malicious prosecution claim included a substantial amount of money still owed to De Cruz and the barristers from the Langstone action makes a difference.”

The judge confessed that she found it “very difficult” to reach a decision, but on balance concluded that the lawyers had not acted outside the role of legal representatives to such an extent as to bring themselves within the non-party costs jurisdiction.

She gave various reasons, including that the additional interest the lawyers had in the success of the malicious prosecution claim was in recovering fees for providing legal services to Mr Willers to defend himself in the Langstone action.

“The Supreme Court in the preliminary issue decision held that it was not an abuse of process for Mr Willers to claim the costs shortfall as a head of damage in the malicious prosecution claim.

“Lord Toulson JSC said that the notion that the costs order made by Newey J at the end of the Langstone action has necessarily made good the injury caused by Mr Gubay’s prosecution of the claim was almost certainly a fiction and the court should try if possible to avoid fictions, especially where they result in substantial injustice.”

The judge said the risk of a non-party costs order in these circumstances would in many instances force the client to instruct a new legal team, which would cost more as they would have to get up to speed.

“There is also an equality of arms point in that the executors would have no restriction on using their same legal team with their high level of familiarity with all the issues, whether or not they had paid all the fees incurred in the earlier proceedings.”

Rose LJ added that De Cruz’s counsel, Jamie Carpenter, had provided a number of scenarios in which the damages claimed in second proceedings include the unpaid costs of the solicitors incurred in the first proceedings.

“These examples satisfy me that it is not possible to make an exception to the protection that the authorities clearly confer on legal representatives in this case without opening up solicitors to potential non-party costs applications in many spheres in which they act for a client who is claiming as damages the fees which the client owes them for work done for him in earlier proceedings.

“There is no principled way to draw a line between those cases and the present case. In each case, it would be unfair either to deprive the client of the services of his former lawyers or in effect to require those lawyers to pursue the outstanding earlier costs by, for example, insisting that the client sell his house, cash in his pension or dispose of other assets in order to pay their fees.”

The judge concluded: “The interest that the [lawyers] had in the success of the malicious prosecution claim was not so different from the direct financial interests that lawyers commonly have in litigation as to make them a real party in substantial and critical respects.”

In a note he published on the case, Imran Benson of Hailsham Chambers (pictured) said: “This case had attracted a lot of interest and the executors are bound to seek permission to appeal. The ramifications, if it had been successful, would have been considerable since it would have considerably broadened the scope of lawyers’ personal liability. But, for now, there is a line in the sand.”

P Mitchell QC And T Shepherd (instructed by Laytons) represented the costs applicants, J Carpenter (instructed by Reynolds Porter Chamberlain) the first and second costs respondents, and P Lawrence QC (instructed By Kennedys Law) the third and fourth costs respondents.


Exclusive Access

Members only article

This article is exclusively for ACL members. Please log in to proceed, or click the button below to fill out an application from and become a part of our professional community.

Post details

Post type
Costs News
Published date
21 Aug 2019

Fill this form out to be notified when booking goes live.

Your Full Name
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.