HOW DOES THE COSTS BUDGET AFFECT THE FINAL BILL? – COURT OF APPEAL PROVIDES GUIDANCE IN HARRISON

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By Colin Richmond

 

Recent uncertainty as to how a costs budget impacts on the final bill in relation to both incurred and estimated costs has, to some extent, been resolved by the judgment in Harrison v University Hospitals Coventry & Warwickshire NHS Trust [2017] EWCA Civ 792.

The judgment provides some clarity following not only the first instance decision in Harrison, but also decisions such as those in Merrix v Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust [2017] EWHC 346 (QB).

The Issues

  1. Where a costs budget has been approved, is a costs judge upon subsequent detailed assessment precluded from assessing costs at a figure below that of the budget unless there is a good reason for doing so?
  2. Specifically in relation to incurred costs, i.e. those incurred before the approval of the budget, is the judge on assessment precluded from assessing costs at a lower figure without a good reason for doing so?

The Decision

  1. The court should only sanction a proposed departure from a costs budget, either upwards or downwards, if satisfied that there is a good reason to do so.
  2. Incurred costs, however, which will not have been “budgeted,” should be assessed in the traditional manner. There is no requirement for a “good reason” to justify departing from the incurred costs figure on assessment.

Budgeted Costs

In relation to the Appellant’s argument that there was a risk of costs budgeting replacing detailed assessment, Davis LJ stated:

  • Against that context, I turn to the critical issue of the actual wording of CPR 3.18 (b).  Mr Hutton’s arguments were to the effect that there is a degree of ambiguity in the language used, justifying a purposive approach to its interpretation.  Since, for the reasons I have sought to give above, the purposive approach which he advocates rests on very shaky foundations that hardly assists him.  But in any event I do not consider there to be any real ambiguity in the words at all.
  • The appellant’s argument has this initial, and unattractive, oddity.  If it is right, it involves a most unappealing lack of reciprocity.  It means that a receiving party may only seek to recover more than the approved or agreed budgeted amount if good reason is shown; whereas the paying party may seek to pay less than the approved or agreed budgeted amount without good reason being required to be shown.  It is difficult to see the sense or fairness in that. Nor does this argument show much appreciation for the position of the actual parties to the litigation – not just the prospective paying party but also the prospective receiving party – who need at an early stage in the litigation to know, as best they can, where they stand: precisely one of the points validly made in Cook on Costs (cited above)

He went on to say:

  • Further, Mr Hutton’s argument seemed to me to have two potential wider weaknesses.  First, aspects of it seemed to be almost asserting that unless the Rules were interpreted as he argued a CMO approving a budget would operate in effect to replace the detailed assessment.  That clearly is not right: as Carr J pointed out in Merrix.  The effect, rather, is as to how the detailed assessment is conducted.  Second, and linked to the first point, the whole argument, in my opinion, tends to downplay the significance of the “override” built into the wording of CPR 3.18 (b).  Where there is a proposed departure from budget – be it upwards or downwards – the court on a detailed assessment is empowered to sanction such a departure if it is satisfied that there is good reason for doing so.  That of course is a significant fetter on the court having an unrestricted discretion: it is deliberately designed to be so.  Costs judges should therefore be expected not to adopt a lax or over-indulgent approach to the need to find “good reason”: if only because to do so would tend to subvert one of the principal purposes of costs budgeting and thence the overriding objective. Moreover, while the context and the wording of CPR 3.18 (b) is different from that of CPR 3.9 relating to relief from sanctions, the robustness and relative rigour of approach to be expected in that context (see Denton v TH White Limited [2014] EWCA Civ 906[2014] 1 WLR 3926) can properly find at least some degree of reflection in the present context. Nevertheless, all that said, the existence of the “good reason” provision gives a valuable and important safeguard in order to prevent a real risk of injustice; and, as I see it, it goes a considerable way to meeting Mr Hutton’s doom-laden predictions of detailed assessments becoming mere rubber stamps of CMOs and of injustice for paying parties if the approach is to be that adopted in this present case.  As to what will constitute “good reason” in any given case I think it much better not to seek to proffer any further, necessarily generalised, guidance or examples.  The matter can safely be left to the individual appraisal and evaluation of costs judges by reference to the circumstances of each individual case

In relation to incurred costs, Davis LJ stated:

  • The starting point is this.  CPR 3.18 (b), in its then form, relates to a departure from “the approved or agreed budget”.  But the costs incurred before the date of the budget were never agreed in this case.  Nor were they ever “approved” by the CMO.  On the contrary the focus of a judge making a CMO is on estimating the costs reasonably and proportionately to be incurred in the future: as the opening words of CPR 3.15 (1) make clear.  In undertaking this exercise the court may have regard to costs stated already to have been incurred: and that may in turn impact on its assessment of what may be reasonable or proportionate for the future.  But paragraph 7.4 of PD 3E is quite specific: as part of the costs management process the court may not approve costs incurred before the date of the budget costs management conference.  What it can do is record in the CMO its comments (if any) on such costs: which are then be taken into account when considering reasonableness and proportionality: a direction now enshrined in the amended CPR 3.15 (4) and CPR 3.18 (c) with effect from 1 April 2017.
  • It follows, in my view, that incurred costs are not as such within the ambit of CPR 3.18 (in its unamended form) at all.  Accordingly such incurred costs are to be the subject of detailed assessment in the usual way, without any added requirement of “good reason” for departure from the approved budget.
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