It is only a solicitor who can determine “the content and terms” of their demand for payment, and not the client or the court, the High Court has ruled.
The latest litigation involving Leeds firm JG Solicitors, whose business is challenging deductions from personal injury clients’ bills, concerned whether a bill that was not sent to a client could be treated as delivered after that firm handed over its file to the client that contained the bill. Both at first instance and now in the High Court, the answer was no.
Mr Justice Soole said: “Both in consequence of this principle [that it is for the solicitor to decide] and as a matter of construction, the court’s power under section 68 [of the Solicitors Act 1974] to order a solicitor to deliver a bill of costs does not entitle the court to order (nor therefore the client to seek) delivery of a specific identified document and thereby to determine the terms and content of the solicitor’s demand or claim for payment.
“It is for the solicitor to provide ‘a bill’ of his costs; and for the process of assessment to deal with any challenge thereto. The prohibition against withdrawal of a delivered bill without consent or court order provides further protection for the client.
“The client can be in no better position if the relevant document has come into his possession otherwise than in the character of a delivered bill of costs. There is no principled basis to treat it differently from a document which remains in the possession of the solicitors.
In Parvez v Mooney Everett Solicitors  EWHC 62 (QB), Ms Parvez’s road traffic claim was settled for £2,100. In June 2016, her Merseyside solicitors sent her a letter to say that, after deduction of a success fee of £525 and ATE premium of £164.25, she would receive the balance of £1,410.75. The law firm sent her a cheque the following week.
Some weeks later, she instructed JG Solicitors, and Mooney Everett agreed to its request to supply the file. In it was a document dated 28 June 2016 headed ‘Bill of Costs’, and with a sub-heading saying: ‘For our Professional Services acting on your behalf in the recovery of damages.’
The ‘Total Bill’ was £1,505.25. It comprised ‘Profit Costs’ of £1,125 (£500 inter partes costs recovered, success fee (net of VAT), plus VAT) and disbursements of £380.25 (medical report and ‘ATE payable by client’). This document, called the June Bill, had not previously been sent to Ms Parvez.
In the meantime, JG asked Mooney Everett to deliver a statute bill, which it did – for £6,461.95.
Before District Judge Bellamy, it was unsuccessfully contended that the inclusion of the June Bill in the file of papers constituted Mooney Everett’s ‘delivery’ of a statute bill to her within the meaning of section 70.
Soole J observed that “this contention was rightly not pursued in the course of oral submissions on the appeal” but was replaced by an argument that Ms Parvez was entitled to elect to treat it as having been delivered; and that she had made such election on or about 3 October 2016.
Rejecting these arguments, Soole J said: “The client can be in no better position if the relevant document has come into his possession otherwise than in the character of a delivered bill of costs. There is no principled basis to treat it differently from a document which remains in the possession of the solicitors.”
In reaching his decision, Soole J relied on the Court of Appeal’s 2014 decision in Kingstons v Reiss made – that a document is not a bill of costs unless it is “sent by the solicitor to the client as a demand or claim of the sum therein stated to be due” – and said it was not confined to its particular facts.