This blog by Jeremy McKeown examines the unanimous judgment handed down by the Court of Appeal on 27 October 2022 in the so-called ‘costs case of the decade’, Belsner v CAM Legal Services Ltd  EWCA Civ 1387. The case of Karatysz v SGI Legal LLP  EWCA Civ 1388 was linked and heard alongside it.
The importance of the case was reflected in the composition of the panel chosen to hear it. The Master of the Rolls (Sir Geoffrey Vos MR, who gave the principal judgment) was joined by the Chancellor of the High Court (Flaux LJ) and Nugee LJ.
The underlying claims were modest county court claims for personal injury arising out of road traffic accidents.
After settling the claims, the claimants’ solicitors made deductions from their clients’ damages in accordance with CFA agreements purporting to allow success fees and certain unrecovered costs to be deducted. Both clients instructed new solicitors – checkmylegalfees.com – who brought section 70 Solicitor Act 1974 (‘1974 Act’) costs assessment proceedings to attempt to reduce their deductible fees.
In Belsner, the Claimant accepted that she had freely signed the CFA under which she agreed to pay personally any shortfall in the solicitors’ costs recovered from Defendant. This proved to be contentious when her solicitors sought to subtract the balance of their unrecovered (and irrecoverable) costs from the Claimant’s damages.
She accepted that she was told that her solicitors’ estimated costs would be £2,500 and her damages entitlement was around £2,000 but complained that she was not told that the fixed costs recoverable from D was only £500.
In both cases, the section 70 proceedings came before DJ Bellamy sitting in Sheffield County Court. The first appeal against DJ Bellamy’s decisions was made to Lavender J and a further appeal to the Court of Appeal followed.
Questions of law
Several costs issues were raised on appeal.
The appeal principally concerned the way in which solicitors were entitled to charge their clients for bringing low-value road traffic claims through the online Pre-Action Protocol for Low Value Personal Injury Claims in Road Traffic Accidents (commonly called the ‘RTA portal’).
In determining the solicitors’ obligations to the client, section 74(3) of the 1974 Act and CPR 46.9(2) were the key provisions:
- Section 74(3) is the general rule restricting any item of costs payable by the client to their solicitors to no more than the amount which could have been allowed in respect of that item as between the parties;
- CPR 46.9(2) provides a long-standing exception to s.74(3) where the solicitor and client can enter into a “written agreement which expressly permits payment to the solicitor of an amount of costs greater than that which the client could have recovered from another party to the proceedings”.
- In other words, the solicitor can recover from the client greater costs than have been recovered from the other side if the client has agreed in writing to that arrangement.
A key point to note is that these provisions only apply to ‘contentious business’ as defined by the 1974 Act.
The core question then was whether the Judge was right to assume that s. 74(3) and CPR 46.9(2) applied to cases brought in the RTA portal where no proceedings were actually issued. If so, the higher standard of ‘informed consent’ would be triggered. The answer to that question turned on whether claims made in the RTA portal are properly to be regarded as “non-contentious business” (as the solicitors claimed) or as “contentious business” (as the client argued).
Another important legal principle underpinning the dispute was the impact of any fiduciary duties owed by the solicitors to their client. It was argued that a solicitor, as fiduciary, could not receive a profit from their client without that client’s fully ‘informed consent’. In this case, the ‘informed consent’ would have been triggered when negotiating the CFA.
A related though distinct question asked and answered by the Court was whether the retainer agreement, which charged the client more that the costs recovered from D, was unfair pursuant to the Consumer Rights Act 2015?
The issues in the linked case of Karatysz focussed on how to determine the amount of a bill of costs.
This had particular importance when deciding whether there had been a reduction upon assessment, which in turn would likely determine who was responsible for paying the costs of the assessment (i.e., the challenger if the reduction was less than one fifth the amount of the bill and the solicitors if the reduction was greater than one fifth).
Decision of the Court of Appeal
The Court decided 5 key questions:
- Does section 74(3) and/or CPR 46.9(2) apply at all to claims brought through the RTA portal without county court proceedings actually being issued? Answer: no, the above provisions do not apply at all to the RTA portal. though the Court went on to criticise the current position as unsatisfactory (see below);
- Were the solicitors required to obtain ‘informed consent’ from the Client in the negotiation and agreement of the CFA, either due to the fiduciary nature of the solicitor-client relationship or through the language of CPR Part 46.9(2)? Answer: No. Lavender J (on the first appeal) was wrong to find that the solicitors owed fiduciary duties in the negotiation of their retainer. They were not obligated to obtain the client’s ‘informed consent’ to the terms of the CFA;
- If informed consent was required, did the Client give informed consent to the terms of the CFA relating to the solicitors’ fees? Answer: informed consent was not necessary, however, the Court held that the approach of the solicitors had not complied with the SRA Code of Conduct in that they neither ensured that the client received best possible information about the likely overall costs nor did they ensure that the client was in a position to make an informed decision. However, whilst that be a matter of good professional practice, it “does not necessarily mean that the Solicitors’ Bill was unfair” .
- In any event, was the term in the solicitors’ retainer allowing them to charge the client more than the costs recoverable from the defendant unfair under the Consumer Rights Act 2015? Answer: No. The term did not infringe the CRA 2015. However, the basis for the finding was relatively narrow in that the Claimant’s CRA 2015 argument was premised on the idea that the term was unfair because it resulted in a liability for costs much in excess of the fixed minimum allowed under section 74(3). Since that section was held not to apply to RTA portal claims, the “foundation of [her] claim under the CRA 2015…is not available to her” .
- What were the consequences of the decision on the costs assessment? Answer: the Court would reconsider the assessment on the correct basis (i.e. assessed as non-contentious costs rather than contentious costs), namely para 3 of the Solicitors’ (Non-Contentious Business) Remuneration Order 2009 requiring solicitors’ costs to be “fair and reasonable having regard to all the circumstances of the case”. On that basis, the costs actually charged to C were fair and reasonable.
Despite having decided as it did, the Court went on to criticise the current state of the law and invited reform :
- The distinction between ‘contentious’ and ‘non-contentious’ costs was outdated and illogical and was in need of urgent legislative attention;
- Whilst the Court confirmed that it was the current state of the law, there was no logical reason why section 74(3) and CPR 46.9(2) should not apply to cases where proceedings are issued in the county court but not to cases in the RTA or Whiplash portals;
- It was unsatisfactory that, in RTA claims in the RTA portal (and perhaps the Whiplash portal), solicitors seemed to be signing their clients up to a costs regime that allowed the solicitors to charge significantly more than the claim was known in advance to be worth. That may be alleviated by certain solicitors exercising their discretion to charge clients lesser sums after the event but that was not a satisfactory answer. Counsel for the solicitors had submitted that the solicitors would not have “dreamed” of doing anything other than making a proportionate deduction as opposed to charging the full base costs to which they were entitled under the CFA agreement. However, the Court responded as follows: “In future, I hope that solicitors will not suggest CFA or other fee arrangements to their clients that allow for fees that they would not dream of actually charging.” 
- It was illogical that the CPR should dictate mandatory costs and other provisions (e.g. Part 36, PD8B) that apply to pre-action online portals but otherwise deal only with proceedings once they are issued at court. Section 24 of the Judicial Review and Courts Act 2022 allows the new Online Procedure Rules Committee (OPRC) to make rules that affect claims made in the online pre-action portals and that committee should make all the rules for claims progressed online and in the online pre-action action portals.
- It is unsatisfactory that solicitors like checkmylegalfees.com can adopt a business model that allows them to bring expensive High Court litigation to assess modest solicitors’ bulls in cases of this kind. The Court advised that the Legal Ombudsman scheme would be a cheaper and more effective method of querying solicitors’ bills in these circumstances.
At first instance there was a disagreement about the true amount of the solicitors’ bill of costs.
The solicitors had argued that the actual cost of their Bill was £1,571.50 which amounted to the £1,116 costs recovered from D plus the £455.50 shortfall deducted from C’s damages.
However, DJ Bellamy decided that the correct amount of the solicitors’ bill of costs was £2,731.90. Since he then reduced the size of the bill significantly, he ordered the solicitors to pay the costs of the assessment under section 70(9) of the 1974 Act provided that the costs of an assessment shall be paid according to the event of the assessment, “that is to say, if the amount of the bill is reduced by one fifth, the solicitor shall pay the costs”.
The issue on appeal was therefore how does a court determine the “amount of a bill” for these purposes? Lavendar J decided on first appeal that a “bill of costs is a demand for payment” therefore “the amount of a bill is the amount demanded by the bill”.
The Court of Appeal largely agreed and said the question was correctly framed as follows: “what is the total sum that the bill is demanding be paid to the Solicitors, whether or not all or part of that total sum has actually been paid”.
Comment and practice points
The Court of Appeal pointed out that, at its height, “more than 600,000 case per annum were brought through the RTA portal” . Following the introduction of tariff damages for RTA claims up to £5,000, some 300,000 of these claims now brought through the alternative ‘Whiplash Portal’. Against that background, it is obvious why the decision in Belsner had the potential for a wide-ranging, perhaps even devastating, impact on claimant solicitors and the re-writing of thousands of current CFAs.
As it stands, the Court of Appeal’s decision represents a resounding win for the status quo as it was understood and practised by solicitors. On the other hand, it represents a mighty rebuke of that same status quo, indicating that change may be coming.
The Court was categorical in its criticism of the current state of law and practice. Arguably the most distinguished panel of the Court of Appeal, in a 3-0 ruling, made it known that their hand was forced by the unambiguous nature of the current provisions but that they were not impressed with how things stood.
Rarely does the Court of Appeal so explicitly criticise not only the state of the law but also the professionalism of those practitioners as a class conducting this type of litigation (although it must be stressed that there is no finding as to how representative or otherwise the arrangements in these cases were).
Claimant solicitors should be in no doubt that Belsner will be waved before the lower courts by parties hoping to hold solicitors to what the Court of Appeal has said is proper practice when advising claimants about the real-world impact of the CFA terms they are signing.
In particular, claimant solicitors ought to pay attention and amend their working practices to:
- Think very carefully before asking clients to sign CFAs or other fee arrangements which allow for fees which they either would not “dream” of enforcing in full or which would, if enforced, likely wipe out the client’s damages award given the fixed costs rules at play in that particular claim;
- Be sure to advise the client explicitly not only what the solicitors’ likely base costs would be but also the maximum fixed costs recoverable from the other side under the rules to allow the client to appreciate and anticipate the shortfall that they are agreeing to pay.
Another cautionary note arises in respect of bringing expensive section 70 proceedings to assess or challenge modest bills of costs. As advised by the Court, solicitors not advancing such matters before the Legal Ombudsman may find themselves criticised by the court. That said, the pros and cons of the Ombudsman route were not considered by the court, and it is tempting to wonder whether it really does provide a satisfactory alternative. However, it may be that solicitors ought to explore that route before advancing a section 70 to ensure that they have an answer if challenged as to why it was not suitable in that specific case.
As for the next steps, it is unclear whether a further appeal to the Supreme Court is on the cards.
If not, it is certainly possible that the attention that this appeal has garnered, and the force of the Court’s criticisms of the current state of the law, will provoke action