Georgina Wolfe acts in Significant Decision on the Recoverability of Inquest Costs in Civil Proceedings

Lynch -v- Chief Constable of Warwickshire Police, Warwickshire County Council and Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust

 

In 2005, Colette Lynch was murdered by her former partner. The inquest took place in 2009 and lasted three and a half months. A civil action brought on behalf of the estate and Colette Lynch’s family was settled for a confidential sum in 2012. The family sought to recover costs of £1.5m including approximately £750,000 for the pre-inquest preparation and inquest.

Master Rowley handed down judgment setting out a clear approach to the recoverability of costs for attending an inquest in civil proceedings. He warns in the judgment that ‘It is not for me to lay down any form of general guidelines and the conclusions in this judgment relate to this case alone’ [3]. However, in an area of law which has received little judicial scrutiny up to this point, this case provides a very helpful starting point.

Inquests costs are recoverable in principle where they are costs ‘of and incidental to’ the civil proceedings (Roach v Home Office [2009] EWHC 312 (QB)) and meet the test set out in Re Gibson’s Settlement Trusts [1981] Ch 179. However, now that disclosure prior to an inquest is routine, this has a significant impact on whether the costs of full attendance (in Lynch there were up to four legal representatives) are costs of and incidental to the civil proceedings.

Master Rowley found the claimants’ costs to be globally disproportionate. He found it ‘inconceivable that the approach adopted by the claimants in this case would be upheld as a proportionate method of bringing these claims to a civil hearing. No case managing judge would allow sums of the magnitude claimed here to be spent in the working up of the claim before the close of pleadings in the court proceedings’ [65].

He went on to find that costs incurred in the following categories were not recoverable in this case:

–          Time spent that was irrelevant to the civil claim such as attending PIRs, the opening of the inquest, procedural matters, summing up, jury questions and waiting for the jury;

–          Time spent listening to witness statements being read.

Master Rowley awarded only the cost of junior counsel (though observed a senior solicitor may be equally suitable) for the following categories:

–          Attendance during the evidence of the Claimants’ own witnesses;

–          Attendance when no questions were asked by the Claimants’ team;

–          Attendance during the evidence of witnesses whom the coroner described as not being directly involved;

–          Attendance during the evidence of the Defendants’ systems witnesses.

Where witnesses had previously given evidence in other proceedings (here, the police disciplinary hearing), all that was recoverable were the costs of the attendance of a trainee solicitor to take a note. He found that ‘client care’ or ‘hand-holding’ fell within the private retainer regarding attending the inquest and was not part of the civil claim.

This decision is extremely helpful for defendants who are often presented with high bills for inquest attendance which have been incurred even before the claim has been issued or, as here, Particulars of Claim served. While the costs of attendance should be allowed where they are of use and benefit to the civil claim, Master Rowley’s robust approach will hopefully serve as a useful tool for management of such costs, and is clearly aligned to the new overriding objective and Lord Justice Jackson’s reforms with their emphasis on proportionality.

Georgina Wolfe was junior counsel on behalf of the three Defendants

The full text of the judgment can be found here.