In this blog Jeremy McKeown considers the Court of Appeal decision of University Hospitals of Derby & Burton NHS Foundation Trust v Harrison  EWCA Civ 1660.
IMPORTANT PRACTICE POINT: This decision (as with all other similar authorities) is currently good law but its shelf-life has been severely limited by the recent published changes in the QOCS rules to take effect from April 2023 (see our recent blog post: Costs Earthquake – QOCS rules to change radically in April).
In this important decision on the impact of QOCS on a defendant’s ability to recover its costs, the Court of Appeal clarified Cartwright v Venduct Engineering Ltd  EWCA Civ 1654 and confirmed that damages recorded or referred to in a necessary court order, for example where the court’s permission is required to accept a Part 36 offer after the relevant period, is not an “order for damages and interest” within the meaning of CPR 44.14.
If the resulting court order had been considered a qualifying order within CPR 44.14, the defendant could have set-off their costs against the agreed damages. Those costs were considerable since the claimant accepted a Part 36 offer some two years after the end of the relevant period.
The case builds on well-established authority that defendants cannot set-off their costs after the relevant period against damages resulting from acceptance of a Part 36. The rationale for this rule is that acceptance of an offer does not fall within the strict wording of the CPR which allows set-off against damages in QOCS claims only where there is an “order for damages and interest” (CPR 44.14). Where a case settles, there is rarely a court order for damages and therefore no ability to set-off.
However, in Harrison, owing to late acceptance of the offer (CRU had accrued since the offer was made) the court’s permission was required. In granting permission, the court issued an order which the defendants said satisfied CPR 44.14 and allowed them to set-off their costs against the agreement damages.
On appeal, Coulson LJ made the following key findings:
- In (1) granting permission for the offer to be accepted and (2) directing the amount of the deduction payable to CRU, the court “was not carrying out any evaluation or assessment of what was due or to be paid. [The Judge at first instance] was not, therefore, making an order for damages in favour of the claimant” [para. 28].
- Instead, the Judge was simply “directing the amount of deduction” that was to be made to the settlement figure in accordance with the CPR provisions.
- This was reinforced by the method of enforcement open to the claimant if the defendants did not pay. The party would have to enforce in accordance with the procedure set out in CPR 36.14(7) rather than by claiming the other party had breached a court order. The defendant’s obligation to pay therefore arose from the effect of the CPR and not from the order [paras. 29-30].
- If it were to be otherwise, “form would be elevated over substance”. It would create a two-tier system where certain (regular) settlements within Part 36 would continue to afford QOCS protection to a claimant whereas other settlements which happened to require the court to issue a certain type of order containing a reference to the damages in the body of the order, as here, would lose QOCS protection. If that were so, all that would matter would be the form of court order required [paras. 36-37].
- In fact, the concern was said not to be merely hypothetical. There are certain types of claim where Part 36 requires the court to make an order to reflect the settlement between the parties. Those include: cases where the claimant lacks mental capacity, where the claimant is a child, where the claimant is disabled and qualifies for provisional damages or periodic payments, or where a dependant claimant of the deceased is entitled to an apportionment of dependency damages. If the appellant’s argument were to succeed, it would mean that an ‘ordinary’ claimant would keep QOCS protection whereas any of the above would lose it. The court concluded that was not what the CPR intended [paras. 40-41].
In obiter comments, the court also indicated that the following circumstances were also unlikely to entitle a defendant to set-off under CPR 44.14:
- Approval hearings (CPR 36.14(2));
- Orders for Periodical Payments (CPR 36.18(7));
- Disputes over CRU (CPR 36.22(9)(b));
- Judgment where, following acceptance of a CPR, Part 36 offer, payment is not made within 14 days (CPR 36.14(7)).
The decision follows closely on the heels of Chappell v Mrozek  EWHC 3147 (QB) which also denied the defendant the ability to set-off its costs (see our previous blog post: QOCS trumps Part 36 – Another Claimant “victory” (for now)?).
The decision offers further proof of the claimant-friendly framing of the QOCS rules following settlement. It is a reminder to defendants that disposal by way of settlement, whether under Part 36 or otherwise, will almost never attract the right to set-off against damages.
Harrison appears to stand in contrast to the recent case of MRA v Education Fellowship Ltd  EWHC 1069 (QB) where the High Court held that an order following approval of a settlement sum did constitute an order of the court allowing the defendants to set-off. That decision must be questioned in light of the Court of Appeal’s recent findings.
The Court of Appeal also addressed the ongoing consultation on changes to the QOCS rules triggered by the Supreme Court’s decision in Ho v Adelekun  UKSC 43. Ironically, the fact that there is said to be a need for changes to CPR 44.14, and that there were known proposed changes in the works, supported the court’s thinking that the appellant’s interpretation of the rule as it currently stands must be wrong.
The decision also helpfully cites the current proposed changes under consideration by the CPR rules committee: At the meeting of the CPRC on 7 October 2022, a fuller amendment was agreed (emphasis added):
“(1) Subject to rules 44.15 and 44.16, orders for costs made against a claimant may be enforced without the permission of the court but only to the extent that the aggregate amount in money terms of such orders does not exceed the aggregate amount in money terms of any orders for or agreements to pay damages, costs and interest made in favour of the claimant.”
For defendants, this presents a welcome change. As many commentators have noted, the rule as currently written clearly runs contrary to the intention and policy aims when QOCS was being debated:
“As to the second scenario (claimant fails to beat defendant’s offer), the defendant will have adequate protection: the court will be likely to make a costs order against the claimant in respect of the post-offer period in circumstances where (a) the claimant was acting unreasonably in rejecting a proper offer and (b) the costs in respect of the pre-offer period plus the damages recovered by the claimant provide sufficient funds out of which the claimant can reasonably be expected to pay at least some costs” Chapter 19, (4.10) of Jackson’s Review of Civil Litigation Costs: Final Report dated December 2009
- Defendants should go back and reconsider any Part 36 offers in live cases. If there was reliance on the defendants being able to set-off costs based on a reading of CPR 44.14 which the court in Harrison has now contradicted, you may wish to consider a revision of those offers.
- The case is a useful reminder of the importance of the one strategic advantage held by defendants, namely the ability to severely limit the Claimant’s costs where the defendant makes an early Part 36 offer. In Harrison, the one consequence for the claimant in accepting an offer almost two years after the end of the relevant period was that they were denied all costs after that date.