Court Costs, Inquiry Costs

Jessie J is no judge and when it comes to litigation costs “forget about the price tag” is poor advice.

Aarhus cost caps

I last blogged about Aarhus Convention cost capping in my 22 June blog post No Time To Be 21: Where Are We With Aarhus Costs Protection? The detail is in that blog post but basically the regime allows a potential claimant in many planning and environmental cases to cap exposure to the other’s side’s costs (if the claim fails) to (subject to case by case variations) £5,000 for an individual and otherwise £10,000. As a quid pro quo, if the claimant succeeds, the claimant can only recover (subject to case by case variations) £35,000 from the other side towards its costs.

A big question, unanswered until this month, was whether these amounts are inclusive or exclusive of VAT. This only matters if the party seeking to recover the costs is not VAT-registered and cannot recover its VAT. But it matters a lot to most individuals and campaign groups.

The issue was decided following written submissions in R (Friends of the Earth) v Secretary of State for Transport (Court of Appeal, 13 January 2021). The background doesn’t matter much but is odd – Friends of the Earth were one of the parties in the Heathrow cases that won in the Court of Appeal against the Secretary of State for Transport, but the case only proceeded to the Supreme Court because interested party Heathrow Airport Limited appealed. Despite the Court of Appeal’s ruling being overturned, Secretary of State for Transport remained on the hook for Friends of the Earth’s costs from the Court of Appeal and, before then, the Divisional Court.

The relevant Aarhus Convention based costs order that had previously been made by the Court of Appeal in the main proceedings was:

The Defendant is to pay the costs of the Claimant in the Divisional Court and in this Court, subject to detailed assessment and a cap of £35,000 in respect of the costs in the Divisional Court, and a cap of £35,000 in respect of the costs in this Court.”

Friends of the Earth submitted that this meant they were due a contribution of £70,000 towards their costs, as well as the VAT element, i.e. £84,000. (Incidentally this is the express statutory position in Northern Ireland – in England and Wales the Civil Procedure Rules are silent on the issue). The Secretary of State submitted that the cap was inclusive of any VAT element.

The Court of Appeal sided with the Secretary of State for four reasons:

“First, that is the natural meaning of the words used in those provisions. The figures are set out as absolute amounts, without qualification.

Secondly, this construction is supported by the history of the consultation exercise and the response to it by the Government in the process which led up to the enactment of CPR 45.43.

Thirdly, it does not seem to us that this would impede or frustrate the implementation in domestic law of the Aarhus Convention. That Convention simply requires that the costs of environmental litigation such as this should not be prohibitive. It does not require a contracting State to specify a particular ceiling, still less to state whether it is inclusive or exclusive of VAT.

Fourthly, the fact that the regulations applicable in Northern Ireland expressly provide for the ceilings to be exclusive of VAT does not assist FoE. Indeed, it suggests that, when the relevant legislative body wished to make the point clear, it was able to, and did so.”

So the bottom line is that the £70,000 entitlement had become an entitlement to £58,333.33 plus the VAT element on that amount.

There is an element of unequal treatment in this – if the party claiming costs were able to recover VAT the cap would in practice apply to its net costs figure, the VAT element only being an issue where the party can’t recover its VAT. Time to amend the CPR to accord with the Northern Ireland position?

Incidentally, I recommend a short YouTube summary on the case by Kings Chambers’ Martin Carter. As I write, the video has had 36 views and Jessie J’s Price Tag has had 731 million views. Come on planoraks!

Other court costs awards

Stepping aside from Aarhus costs capping, the general principle is that “if a party who has been given leave to bring a judicial review claim succeeds in establishing after fully contested proceedings that the defendant acted unlawfully, some good reason would have to be shown why he should not recover his reasonable costs” (Lord Toulson in R (on the application of Hunt) v North Somerset Council (Supreme Court, 22 July 2015) but the court of course always has a wide discretion.

That discretion may well result in no award or a reduced award. Two examples which may serve to manage expectations:

In Tomkins v City of London Corporation (Lang J, 8 December 2020) the claimant challenged the making of an experimental traffic order in relation to Beech Street, which runs under the Barbican Estate. He won on three of eight grounds but was not awarded costs:

The Claimant’s application for the City to pay his costs is refused. Although he succeeded on three of the eight grounds, he did not succeed in quashing the [experimental traffic order]. The Council succeeded on five of the grounds, and the issues on which the Council succeeded occupied the majority of the hearing, and the post-hearing submissions. The City incurred significant costs in preparing and presenting those issues. Their costs far exceed the Claimant’s claim for costs in respect of the grounds on which he was successful. The City is not pressing for its costs, but has instead proposed that there should be no order for costs. In all the circumstances I consider that this is a just and appropriate order.”

(Town Legal’s Town Library summary is here).

In Flaxby Park Ltd v Harrogate Borough Council (Holgate J, 25 November 2020) the claimant had sought to challenge the adoption of part of the Harrogate local plan on three grounds and succeeded on part of one ground. To cut a long story short (literally), Holgate J did not allow the claimant to recover the costs of an original bundle which he considered to be disproportionately lengthy or of the preparation of a witness statement which he determined to be unnecessary, and awarded the claimant 15% of the balance of its costs:

“I do not accept HBC’s submissions that there should be no order as to costs. … It was necessary for FPL to bring proceedings, but they ought to have been on a much more limited scale. Taking into account also the unnecessary expenditure to which HBC has been put in order to resist the substantial parts of the claim where FPL was unsuccessful, FPL should be awarded only 15% of its costs…”

Appeal inquiry costs awards

In Swale Borough Council v Secretary of State (Sir Ross Cranston, 17 December 2020), Swale Council sought unsuccessfully to challenge a costs order made against it by a section 78 appeal inspector

The judgment includes a helpful review of the case law in relation to challenges to inspectors’ awards of costs, leading to the following conclusion by the judge:

“the authorities establish the following propositions:


(i) the Secretary of State is entitled to adopt a policy about costs and having done so his inspectors must apply it;


(ii) the policy is that costs may be awarded against a party for unreasonable behaviour resulting in unnecessary or wasted expense;


(iii) “unreasonable” means unreasonable in the ordinary sense of the word, not unreasonable in a Wednesbury sense;


(iv) a Council’s behaviour may be unreasonable if its refusal of planning permission could not be supported by substantial evidence, but that is not the only test and there may be other relevant factors;


(v) one example is if a developer signs a section 106 agreement; it is accepting that it is reasonable even though the inspector may not be persuaded that it is necessary
.”

The Council had sought to argue that it was wrong for it to be penalised for late withdrawal of its requirement for an affordable housing contribution and for the consequence of a late indication of particular highways concerns but the judge declined to interfere with the judgment of the inspector. For instance, on the second complaint:

In my view this is one of those cases where a different inspector may have reached a different conclusion. However, I cannot conceive that Mr Upton has surmounted the high hurdle necessary to establish that this inspector’s decision was flawed. The case which Mr Village QC put to the inspector was that the Council had not raised what became condition 19, or the further contribution to traffic calming in Darlington Drive/Parsonage Chase, until immediately before the exchange of evidence on 6 January 2020, too late to avoid the preparation of Attwood’s highways evidence. When these were raised as a way forward, Attwood agreed and it was an example of the Council’s failure to review the case promptly following the lodging of the appeal, one of the examples the PPG gives as indicating unreasonable behaviour (at para. 049, referred to earlier).

(Town Legal’s Town Library summary of the case is here).

Simon Ricketts, 16 January 2021

Personal views, et cetera

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning law firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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