Long Players: Time & Money

Is there more that can be done to encourage timely resolution of issues that arise at planning application stage?

Two prompts for this blog post:

1.Provectus Remediation Limited v Derbyshire County Council (Sir Wyn Williams, 8 June 2018), which considered the circumstances in which an applicant for planning permission is entitled to a full fee refund if the application is not determined within 26 weeks.

2. The Secretary of State’s Lotmead Farm, Swindon decision dated 13 June 2018 to accept his inspector’s recommendation to award the local authority its costs against the appellant for unreasonable behaviour in relation to two appeals – on the basis that the appeal process had been used to “evolve the schemes“, contrary to the Planning Inspectorate’s procedural guide (the Secretary of State having dismissed the appeals in a separate decision letter of the same date).

Planning application refunds

In our ridiculous legislative patchwork you need to look at the Town and Country Planning (Fees for Applications, Deemed Applications, Requests and Site Visits) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2013 which amended the 2012 Regulations from 1 October 2013 so as to introduce, as Regulation 9A, the right for an applicant to have its application fee refunded “in the event that the local planning authority fail, or the Secretary of State, in relation to an application made under section 62A of the 1990 Act fails, to determine the application within 26 weeks of the date when a valid application was received by the local planning authority or the Secretary of State, as the case may be.

Regulation 9A (2) provides that the right does not apply where “the applicant and the local planning authority, or, in the case of an application under section 62A of the 1990 Act, the Secretary of State, have agreed in writing that the application is to be determined within an extended period“, the application has been called in, is the subject of an appeal or of judicial review.

In the Provectus case, the claimant had submitted its planning application on 14 September 2014, paying an application fee of £44,000, withdrew the application and resubmitted the application on 22 December 2015 (no additional fee payable due to Regulation 9 of the 2012 Regulations), which was registered by the local planning authority on 25 January 2016. Further environmental information was requested by the authority in April 2016, which was provided (following an extension of time requested by the claimant) in July 2016. On 3 August 2016 the authority requested an extension of time for determining the application and an extension to 7 November 2016 was agreed. Further environmental information was then sought by the authority during the period, the claimant’s agent agreed to that and then was replaced by another agent, which no longer agreed to provide the information, arguing that it had in part already been provided and in part was unnecessary. In December 2016 the claimant appealed on the basis of non-determination and in March 2017 requested that the authority refund the fee.

So in short, a real mess but unfortunately not an unusual sequence of events. From a limited knowledge of events gained solely from the account in the judgment, I would guess that neither side particularly smelt of roses.

The claimant judicially reviewed the decision of the authority to refuse to refund the application fee. The authority took the position that Regulation 9A (2) disapplies the right where the applicant and authority have agreed an extended period for determining the application. The claimant argued that this should not be the case if the application is not then determined within the agreed extended period. To assist their respective stances, both parties’ counsel sought to rely on different parts of the explanatory memorandum that accompanied the 2013 Regulations.

Wholly unsurprisingly, the judge rejected any purposive interpretation:

A refund of a fee paid at the time of a planning application should be made only if a period of 26 weeks has elapsed from the receipt of a valid application and that application has not been determined by the local planning authority. In my judgment, if the applicant and the local planning authority agree in writing that the 26 week period should be extended the planning fee paid by the applicant does not fall to be refunded even if the local planning authority fails to determine the application within the extended period.”

So the claimant did not recover its £44,000 and now faces not only a costs bill from its own lawyers but liability to pay the authority’s costs in relation to the litigation.

The case does highlight a few things:

1. Don’t forget about the right to a refund.

2. Take it into account in your decision making as to whether to agree a time extension.

3. The Regulations plainly risk giving rise to perverse incentives: (1) it is so much safer for an authority if it can agree an extension of time, after which it is not at risk of a fee refund however poor its performance and (2) canny applicants may decline to agree time extensions where an application is running into the sand.

I did wonder to myself why the argument wasn’t made by the claimant that at least 26 weeks had already passed between the submission of a valid application in December 2015 and the agreed time extension but I assume that this wouldn’t have worked given that the formal request under the EIA Regulations for further environmental information would have had the effect of stopping the clock running until the information had been provided and/or that the agreed extension of time for providing that additional environmental information may have itself disapplied Regulation 9A? As ever reality is more complicated than legislation envisages.

Using the appeal system to “evolve” a scheme

Where there is lack of engagement on the part of a local planning authority, what real remedy is there aside from an appeal? And yet Annexe B of the Planning Inspectorate’s procedural guide seeks to encourage resolution of issues before an appeal has been submitted, reflecting the advice in the Planning Practice Guidance:

Before making any appeal the party seeking permission should first consider re-engaging with the local planning authority to discuss whether any changes to the proposal would make it more acceptable and likely to gain permission. It is possible that a further planning application may be submitted without charge. However, this will depend on the circumstances of each case, so parties should ask the local planning authority for further details.”

Annexe M of the PINS procedural guide states:

M.2.1 If an appeal is made the appeal process should not be used to evolve a scheme and it is important that what is considered by the Inspector is essentially what was considered by the local planning authority, and on which interested people’s views were sought.

M.2.2 Where, exceptionally, amendments are proposed during the appeals process the Inspector will take account of the Wheatcroft Principles when deciding if the proposals can be formally amended. In the ‘Wheatcroft’ judgment22 the High Court considered the issue of amendments in the context of conditions and established that “the main, but not the only, criterion on which… judgment should be exercised is whether the development is so changed that to grant it would be to deprive those who should have been consulted on the changed development of the opportunity of such consultation”. It has subsequently been established that the power to consider amendments is not limited to cases where the effect of a proposed amendment would be to reduce the development.

M.2.3 Whilst amendments to a scheme might be thought to be of little significance, in some cases even minor changes can materially alter the nature of an application and lead to possible prejudice to other interested people.

M.2.4 The Inspector has to consider if the suggested amendment(s) might prejudice anyone involved in the appeal. He or she may reach the conclusion that the proposed amendment(s) should not be considered and that the appeal has to be decided on the basis of the proposal as set out in the application.”

The position in which the developer found itself at the Lotmead Farm appeals was that it had sought pre-application advice from Swindon Borough Council over a period from December 2013 to May 2015 in relation to a proposal for up to 2,600 homes together with associated development, on a site with a strategic allocation in the local plan. An application for outline planning permission for the whole scheme as well as an application for outline permission for an initial phase of 200 homes were made on 30 April 2015. The council made a series of requests for further information and for extensions of time. The council refused the applications on 30 June 2016 at a point where the developer was seeking to resolve or at least narrow the issues.

After submitting appeals against the refusals the developer then made a series of amendments to the proposals to seek to address the reasons for refusal. At a pre-inquiry meeting the developer indicated the scope of the amendments that would be made and that an ES addendum would shortly be publicised. The inspector postponed the inquiry to allow participants in the inquiry to have sufficient preparation time. The amendments apparently were then more significant than had been identified. The changes included an additional 2 form entry primary school, an increase in the red line area, changes to the transport proposals, to all of the parameter plans and to the illustrative masterplan and green infrastructure parameter plans. “Moreover, over the following months additional amendments and information were submitted by the appellant and corrections were made to submitted documents“. The ES addendum entailed six of the topic areas being superseded.

In his report on the appeals, the inspector sets out the amendments in detail before stating at paragraph 10.14:

In conclusion, the amended schemes are very significantly different to those determined by the Council and have evolved considerably during the course of the appeals. To use the appeal process in this way is contrary to Procedural Guidance and does not sit comfortably with the Wheatcroft principle. There are no exceptional circumstances to justify this approach. No specific case of prejudice has been highlighted but compliance with the Procedural Guidance is the best way to ensure no-one is disadvantaged through the appeal process.”

She considered that it was appropriate to consider the appeals on the basis of the originally submitted proposals, although (since the appeals had been recovered for the Secretary of State’s own determination) she considered the proposed revisions in detail as well in case the Secretary of State took a different approach. She recommended that the appeals be dismissed, whether or not the revised proposals were considered.

In his decision letter, the Secretary of State accepted the recommendation that the revised proposals should not be considered:

13. The Secretary of State has given careful consideration to the Inspector’s analysis at IR10.1-10.15. The Secretary of State has taken into account that all parameter plans and the illustrative masterplans were amended (IR10.6). The Secretary of State has further taken into account that the ES also was substantially reviewed, with six of the topic chapters being superseded. The Secretary of State has further taken into account at IR10.7 that further amendments were made including proposals for access, surface water management, trees and landscaping. For the reasons given at IR10.6-10.7, the Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector at IR10.7 that the evolution of the proposals results in an overall very considerable change to the schemes and to the quality of the supporting information.

14. For the reasons given at IR10.6-10.7, the Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector at IR10.8 that the amended schemes are not the schemes determined by the local planning authority in June 2016 and on which interested people’s views were sought (IR10.8). The Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector that the narrowing of the areas of dispute was of assistance to the efficient running of the inquiry but was carried out very late in the day. He further agrees that the approach adopted by the appellant during the course of the appeals has not been in accordance with procedural guidance (IR10.8).

15. As such, the Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector at IR10.9 that the changes to the proposals in the Masterplan and the Phase 1 appeals are sufficiently material that consultation on the amendments would be essential.

16. The Secretary of State has taken into account the Inspector’s conclusions on consultation at IR10.10-10.13. The Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector at IR10.14 that the amended schemes are very significantly different to those determined by the Council and have evolved considerably during the course of the appeals. He further agrees that to use the appeal process in this way is contrary to procedural guidance and does not sit comfortably with the Wheatcroft principle and there are no exceptional circumstances to justify this approach; and agrees that no specific case of prejudice has been highlighted but compliance with the procedural guidance is the best way to ensure no-one is disadvantaged through the appeal process (IR10.14). He concludes, in agreement with the Inspector, that the appeals should be determined on the basis of the original proposals (IR10.15).”

A separate report and decision letter addressed an application for costs that was made by the borough council. The inspector recommended that a full award of costs be allowed:

Unreasonable behaviour resulting in unnecessary or wasted expense, as described in the Planning Practice Guidance, has been demonstrated in that:

• appeals were made on the original schemes when there was no reasonable prospect of success, and

• the appeal process was used to evolve the schemes, which was contrary to Procedural Guidance.”

She noted that if amendments to the proposals had been pursued through another application “there would be a greater probability of compromise on both sides, outside of the adversarial appeal process. The normal development management process has been avoided.”

The Secretary of State agreed.

Perhaps here the circumstances were exceptional but I do worry whether this is the right direction for the planning system to be heading in – although I appreciate that the Government and the Planning Inspectorate would prefer a clean, front-loaded appeal process that is only used as a last resort. If anything may conceivably focus a local planning authority on resolving matters with an applicant, it is the risk that its position may come under scrutiny at inquiry. I do not know if this was the case at Lotmead Farm but sometimes it is impossible to ascertain what the authority’s position is, or what changes to a scheme may be considered acceptable. If the developer has to wait for a refusal notice and start again with a further application before appealing, without the ability to bring matters to a head by way of the appeal and changes made as part of the appeal process, appealing becomes increasingly impractical as an option (and the authority knows it).

Of course there has to be a limit to the scale of any amendments made at the appeal stage. But as long as the amendments are fully consulted upon is there really such a problem if they improve the scheme and ensure that permission can be granted by the inspector or Secretary of State rather than a further application being required? Not only do we now have an appeal process that is increasingly slow, we have a process that is increasingly impractical in relation to complex schemes, where interation is inevitable and surely no bad thing.

At least through its appeal, notwithstanding not achieving permission and having an expensive adverse award of costs against it, the Lotmead Farm developer did manage to narrow various issues with the authority and third parties, and secure detailed comments from the inspector on various elements of its proposals, some negative, some negative, but sufficient presumably now to form the firm basis for a further application. The inspector even identified a series of elements of the section 106 package that did not comply with regulation 122 and which presumably will not be included next time round (which will save a substantial sum). It is just a shame that there is not the ability to secure, more nimbly, equivalent independent expert input during the application stage itself so as to resolve differences – rather than tie everyone up in a slow, expensive and adversarial process.

Simon Ricketts, 15 June 2018

Personal views, et cetera

Money & Justice: Tribunal Fees, Licensing Fees, Court Costs

Topical issue: what are the legal constraints on the Government and local authorities in setting the fee rates and cost recovery regimes for administrative and court processes?
Claimant and applicant fee rates in particular are seen by the Government as a lever to seek to 
– ensure that users of procedures make a fair contribution to the costs of providing them

– reduce the burden on the public purse and

– winnow out those who are seen as misusing the system. 

This is however a dangerous game, if access to justice is to be maintained in accordance with domestic and international legal principles. How to get it right?
Dove J heard on 19 July the judicial review by RSPB, Friends of the Earth and ClientEarth of the Government’s changes to the cost capping regime regime that applies to JRs relating to environmental law matters. They take the position that the changes breach the Aarhus Convention’s requirement that access to environmental justice must be available, without prohibitive cost. I have previously blogged on the Government’s changes. ClientEarth issued this press release after the hearing but judgment has been reserved. 

I would not be surprised if that set of proceedings did not end up in the Supreme Court. If so, it could be a worthy sequel to two interesting rulings from the Supreme Court in the last couple of weeks in relation to different subject areas but that same underlying theme. 

R (Unison) v Lord Chancellor (Supreme Court, 26 July 2017) concerned a challenge by trade union Unison to the Employment Tribunals and the Employment Appeal Tribunal Fees Order 2013. The Supreme Court agreed with the claimant that the fee regime for claimants in employment tribunal proceedings and appellants in relation to appeals to the Employment Appeal Tribunal was unlawful because of its effects on access to justice. The full judgment handed down by Lord Reed and supplementary judgment by Lady Hale in relation to discrimination issues are well worth reading. Here are some quotes, which you may care to read with our planning system in mind:
There is a “constitutional right of access to justice: that is to say, access to the courts (and tribunals: R v Secretary of State for the Home Department, Ex p Saleem [2001] 1 WLR 443).” (paragraph 65)
At the heart of the concept of the rule of law is the idea that society is governed by law. Parliament exists primarily in order to make laws for society in this country. Democratic procedures exist primarily in order to ensure that the Parliament which makes those laws includes Members of Parliament who are chosen by the people of this country and are accountable to them. Courts exist in order to ensure that the laws made by Parliament, and the common law created by the courts themselves, are applied and enforced. That role includes ensuring that the executive branch of government carries out its functions in accordance with the law. In order for the courts to perform that role, people must in principle have unimpeded access to them. Without such access, laws are liable to become a dead letter, the work done by Parliament may be rendered nugatory, and the democratic election of Members of Parliament may become a meaningless charade. That is why the courts do not merely provide a public service like any other.” (paragraph 68)
“People and businesses need to know, on the one hand, that they will be able to enforce their rights if they have to do so, and, on the other hand, that if they fail to meet their obligations, there is likely to be a remedy against them. It is that knowledge which underpins everyday economic and social relations.” (paragraph 71)
“There is however no dispute that the purposes which underlay the making of the Fees Order are legitimate. Fees paid by litigants can, in principle, reasonably be considered to be a justifiable way of making resources available for the justice system and so securing access to justice. Measures that deter the bringing of frivolous and vexatious cases can also increase the efficiency of the justice system and overall access to justice.” (paragraph 86)
“The Lord Chancellor cannot, however, lawfully impose whatever fees he chooses in order to achieve those purposes. It follows from the authorities cited that the Fees Order will be ultra vires if there is a real risk that persons will effectively be prevented from having access to justice. That will be so because section 42 of the 2007 Act contains no words authorising the prevention of access to the relevant tribunals. That is indeed accepted by the Lord Chancellor. ” (paragraph 87)
“In order for the fees to be lawful, they have to be set at a level that everyone can afford, taking into account the availability of full or partial remission. The evidence now before the court, considered realistically and as a whole, leads to the conclusion that that requirement is not met. In the first place, as the Review Report concludes, “it is clear that there has been a sharp, substantial and sustained fall in the volume of case receipts as a result of the introduction of fees”. While the Review Report fairly states that there is no conclusive evidence that the fees have prevented people from bringing claims, the court does not require conclusive evidence: as the Hillingdon case indicates, it is sufficient in this context if a real risk is demonstrated. The fall in the number of claims has in any event been so sharp, so substantial, and so sustained as to warrant the conclusion that a significant number of people who would otherwise have brought claims have found the fees to be unaffordable.” (paragraph 91)
“The question whether fees effectively prevent access to justice must be decided according to the likely impact of the fees on behaviour in the real world. Fees must therefore be affordable not in a theoretical sense, but in the sense that they can reasonably be afforded. Where households on low to middle incomes can only afford fees by sacrificing the ordinary and reasonable expenditure required to maintain what would generally be regarded as an acceptable standard of living, the fees cannot be regarded as affordable.” (paragraph 93)
“Given the conclusion that the fees imposed by the Fees Order are in practice unaffordable by some people, and that they are so high as in practice to prevent even people who can afford them from pursuing claims for small amounts and non- monetary claims, it follows that the Fees Order imposes limitations on the exercise of EU rights which are disproportionate, and that it is therefore unlawful under EU law.” (paragraph 117)
The previous week the Supreme Court had returned to the difficult and long-running saga of challenges to Westminster City Council’s fees regime for the licensing of sex shops. The case has been an unholy mess for the Council. It had been setting licensing fees at a rate that included its costs of enforcing the licensing scheme against unlicensed third parties running sex shops. The fee was made up of two parts. One part was payable regarding the administration of the application and was non-refundable. Another part (which was considerably larger – £29,435 in 2011/12) was for the management of the licensing regime and was refundable if the application was refused. Licensed shops brought a challenge, arguing that the second element of the fee was in breach of the Provision of Services Regulations 2009 (SI 2009/2999) (which had been made to give effect domestically to EU Directive 2006/123/EC) and that the only fees that the Council could levy related to the administrative costs of processing the relevant applications and monitoring compliance with the terms of the licence by licence holder, rather than fund enforcement against those who didn’t seek or obtain licences. 
Regulation 18 of the 2009 Regulations provides that:
“(2) Authorisation procedures and formalities provided for by a competent authority under an authorisation scheme must not – 

(a) be dissuasive, or

(b) unduly complicate or delay the provision of the service”

“(4) Any charges provided for by a competent authority which applicants may incur under an authorisation scheme must be reasonable and proportionate to the cost of the procedures and formalities under the scheme and must not exceed the cost of those procedures and formalities.”

The Court of Appeal had upheld the claim in 2013 and as a result made repayments totalling £1,189,466 to the licence holders, together with a further £227,779.15 which it paid, it turned out, by mistake. 
However, the Supreme Court overturned that ruling in 2015, finding that the fees regime was basically lawful. There was one aspect which the court referred to the European Court of Justice, namely the way in which the part of the fee which covered wider enforcement costs was paid upfront when the application was made but only repaid if the application was unsuccessful. The European Court confirmed in November 2016 that this aspect of the regime was indeed unlawful. 
The case came back to the Supreme Court with the Council arguing that it was entitled to be paid or repaid the sums it repaid to licence holders in 2013 and the licence holders in turn contending that they are entitled to retain the repayment made to them in full, because it was charged in a way which in part at least had been unlawful. In its judgment dated 19 July 2017 the court basically agreed with the Council that it is entitled to be reimbursed to the extent that it has raised fees lawfully, but it has remitted the case to the Administrative Court to resolve a whole host of complexities that arise from the whole mess, including a number of accounting issues, complications arising where licensees have ceased to exist and the recovery of the monies that the Council had paid by mistake. 
Implications for planning
It may be thought that our planning system currently has the opposite problem: many applicants would be willing to pay higher application fees if the fees enabled authorities to staff up and offer a faster, better, service. The Government went less far than many would have wished when it announced in its February 2017 housing white paper that:
“We will increase nationally set planning fees. Local authorities will be able to increase fees by 20% from July 2017 if they commit to invest the additional fee income in their planning department. We are also minded to allow an increase of a further 20% for those authorities who are delivering the homes their communities need and we will consult further on the detail. Alongside we will keep the resourcing of local authority planning departments, and where fees can be charged, under review.” (para 2.15)
But even that relatively weak and overdue measure has not yet been brought into effect. 
More controversially the white paper indicated that the Government would consult on introducing a fee for applicants submitting planning appeals: “We are interested in views on this approach and in particular whether it is possible to design a fee in such a way that it does not discourage developers, particularly SMEs, from bringing forward legitimate appeals. One option would be for the fee to be capped, for example at a maximum of £2000 for the most expensive route (full inquiry). All fees could be refunded in certain circumstances, such as when an appeal is successful, and there could be lower fees for less complex cases.”

The white paper consultation sought views on: 
“a) how the fee could be designed in such a way that it did not discourage developers, particularly smaller and medium sized firms, from bringing forward legitimate appeals; 

b) the level of the fee and whether it could be refunded in certain circumstances, such as when an appeal is successful; and 

c) whether there could be lower fees for less complex cases.”

This is another area where we await an indication of whether the new ministerial team will take a different approach. Careful note will need to be taken of the Supreme Court’s rulings in Unison and in Heming. 
Finally, court fees continue to increase, most recently, from 26 July 2016, by way of the Civil Proceedings, Family Proceedings and Upper Tribunal Fees (Amendment) Order 2016 . The Order’s explanatory memorandum puts it like this:
“The majority of fees affected by this instrument will be increased by a rate which is above the level of inflation. The Government has decided, in view of the financial circumstances and given the reductions to public spending, that such an increase is necessary in order to make sure that the courts and tribunals are adequately funded and access to justice is protected, in the long term.
In relation to judicial review, the fee levels are still relatively modest compared to some other court procedures but are still significant sums for some claimants to find, particularly at short notice:
– application for permission to apply £154 (previously £140)

– request to reconsider at a renewal hearing £385 (previously £350)

– to proceed to a full hearing if permission is granted £770, or £385 if reconsideration fee already paid (previously £700 and £350)

There is that tired saying about justice in England being open to all, like the Ritz Hotel. It’s true, save that the Ritz doesn’t close its doors for months on end. The court term ends on Monday 31 July (with the next term starting on 1 October). 
The end of this term marks the end of an era for the Supreme Court: Lords Neuberger and Clarke are retiring (there is an amusing Legalcheek account of their 28 July valedictory speeches) and Lady Hale will become president (only of the Supreme Court unfortunately rather than of the western world). If only we were to see more blogging from the retired judiciary such as that of Sir Henry Brooke. Do read his recent blog post on a truly surreal Tribunal case. 
 Simon Ricketts, 29 July 2017
Personal views, et cetera

Aarhus: Caps In The Air Again

 The Aarhus Convention requires that access to justice in environmental matters should be “be fair, equitable, timely and not prohibitively expensive”. 
Dear patient reader, you will recall that in 2013 the Government introduced a relatively simple mutual costs capping system. It is described in my 19 November 2016 blog post Mending Aarhus, along with a summary of the Government’s response to consultation in 2015 as to proposed changes to the regime to address a number of practical flaws or unfairnesses.
Rule 8(5) of the Civil Procedure (Amendment) Rules 2017  came into force on 28 February 2017, largely implementing the Government’s November 2016 proposals.
The new rules will change the nature of planning litigation in a number of important ways:
1. The procedure was available for judicial review litigation concerning “environmental matters”. The reference to “environmental matters” has been replaced by more specific references to claims within the scope of Articles of the Aarhus Convention that relate to access to environmental information and environmental assessment. Claimants challenging decisions in relation to non-EIA development may now find that they can no longer secure costs protection, even though their claim concerns environmental issues. 
2. The procedure is widened from judicial review litigation to include challenges to enforcement notice appeal decisions but, contrary to what the Government has previously indicated, not section 288 planning appeal decision challenges (nor indeed other statutory appeals, for instance in relation to plan making or compulsory purchase orders). 
3. The procedure is now only open to “members of the public” as defined in the Aarhus Convention (the Convention defines “the public” as “one or more natural or legal persons, and, in accordance with national legislation or practice, their associations, organisations or groups”). The interpretation will ultimately be for the courts to determine (more unnecessary cost and uncertainty) but in my view this is likely to exclude local authorities and other emanations of the state, including parish councils. The idea of a district or borough council seeking to rely on Aarhus costs capping in a claim against another council has sometimes been bizarre but query whether poor as church mice parish councils should be similarly shut out. 
4. Any claimant seeking to have its costs exposure capped will have to file and serve with the claim form a “schedule of the claimant’s financial resources which takes into account any financial support which any person has provided or is likely to provide to the claimant and which is verified by a statement of truth”. It will be crucial, in the short period of time available before the claim is filed and served, to make sure that what is said is both accurate and is not likely to lead the court, on application by the defendant or of its own accord, to increase or remove the caps, having regard to the following principles:
Varying the limit on costs recoverable from a party in an Aarhus Convention claim 45.44.—(1) The court may vary the amounts in rule 45.43 or may remove altogether the limits on the maximum costs liability of any party in an Aarhus Convention claim.
(2) The court may vary such an amount or remove such a limit only if satisfied that— 
* (a)  to do so would not make the costs of the proceedings prohibitively expensive for the claimant; and 


* (b)  in the case of a variation which would reduce a claimant’s maximum costs liability or increase that of a defendant, without the variation the costs of the proceedings would be prohibitively expensive for the claimant. 


(3) Proceedings are to be considered prohibitively expensive for the purpose of this rule if their likely costs (including any court fees which are payable by the claimant) either— 

(a) exceed the financial resources of the claimant; or 

(b) are objectively unreasonable having regard to— 

(i) the situation of the parties;
(ii) whether the claimant has a reasonable prospect of success; 

(iii) the importance of what is at stake for the claimant; 

(iv) the importance of what is at stake for the environment; 

(v) the complexity of the relevant law and procedure;and 

(vi) whether the claim is frivolous

There are some big uncertainties in these criteria. For example, what are the “financial resources” of the claimant? Is the claimant expected to sell illiquid capital assets (such as his or her home, or cash in his or her pension) to meet a costs award that has a short deadline for compliance? If what is at stake is of great importance to the claimant, for example the loss of his home, should he be prepared to accept a higher cap? Does the claimant have to own up to what he is paying his own lawyer? How detailed must the information be as to financial support received from, for instance, contributors to a litigation fighting fund? Will potential contributors be discouraged from reaching in their pockets?
Is this the end of wealthy litigants, whether corporates or individuals, relying on costs capping? Few surely would have any problem with that (if you embark on litigation, be prepared to meet to the other side’s costs if you lose – someone has to) but will this also kick out the JAMs? Will the big NGOs face difficulties explaining that a cap of more than £10,000 would be prohibitively expensive? Will the uncertainties prevent potential litigants from embarking on proceedings in case they lose protection when it is too late in practical terms to back out?
5. Defendants who unsuccessfully challenge costs caps will no longer face an award of costs on an indemnity basis in relation to their challenge. Surely challenges will be much more frequent – and the threat, in responses to pre-action letters, of challenges to costs caps so as to discourage potential claimants. 
6. Any hearing on costs capping issues may be held “in private if it involves confidential information (including information relating to personal financial matters) and publicity would damage that confidentiality”. If hearings are required, which judges seek to avoid on costs cap issues so as not add to the costs burden of the parties, what personal financial information wouldn’t fall into that category?
7. The rules now make clear, in line with case law, that where there are multiple claimants, the £5,000 (for an individual) and £10,000 (for a group) caps apply to each claimant rather than being apportioned between them. 
8. The costs capping regime has now been extended to the Court of Appeal but only in the most sketchy way, not materially changing current practice. The Court of Appeal is simply directed to “consider whether the costs of the proceedings will be prohibitively expensive for a party who was a claimant” and “if they will be, make an order limiting the recoverable costs to the extent necessary to prevent this”.
The House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has strongly criticised the amended rules: “The MoJ has not provided a convincing case for changing from the previous standardised system of cost capping, which was well understood, to this more complex system which appears to have significant potential to increase both the costs for public administration and the uncapped litigation costs of the claimant”. 

Furthermore, in bad timing for the Government, the UN Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee published a report on 24 February 2017, only four days before the amended rules came into force, continuing to express concerns about the operation in England and Wales of costs capping in environmental cases and the changes that were consulted upon in 2015: “with the exception of the proposal to broaden the scope of “Aarhus claims” to include statutory appeals falling within article 9, paragraph 2, of the Convention” [ironically now not fully included as it transpires!] “all proposed amendments would increase rather than decrease uncertainty and risk of prohibitive costs for claimants”. 

The compliance of the amended rules with the Convention is heading for the courts, following a judicial review brought by ClientEarth, Friends of the Earth and RSPB. 
As both poacher and gamekeeper, what do I think? The 2013 rules have not been working badly but it has been absurd on occasion to see wealthy individuals and substantial companies and groups take advantage of extremely low costs caps in litigation against local authorities that have increasingly tight budgets. What would be wrong in that situation in having a mechanism for doubling or trebling the default £5,000/£10,000 cap, as long as the mechanism can be kept as fast and simple as possible? Balancing simplicity against fairness to all is as always the challenge – and for the developer sitting on the sidelines as an interested party the real devil, as always, is delay. 
Simon Ricketts 11.3.17
Personal views, et cetera

NB Invaluable to this piece was first a call from Nicola Gooch at Irwin Mitchell on 28 February, then this good Will Upton blog post and then finally a thought-provoking Francis Taylor Building event presented by Robert McCracken QC, Ned Westaway and Charles Streeten.

Mending Aarhus

On 1 April 2013 the Government changed the Civil Procedure Rules to introduce a system of automatic costs capping  for judicial reviews in England and Wales in relation to “environmental matters” (a broad definition that embraces many “planning” JRs). This was to seek to comply with the Aarhus Convention’s principle that access to environmental justice should not be prohibitively expensive. However, surprise surprise, in some ways arguably the Government went further than was necessary and in other ways it didn’t go far enough. 
What the system did was to allow claimants to opt for mutual cost capping when bringing a claim. If the claimant ultimately lost, as an individual (however well-resourced) his or her exposure to the successful defendant’s costs would then be capped at £5k and if a company or other body (however well-resourced) its exposure would be capped at £10k. As a quid pro quo, if the claimant won it could only recover up to £35k. The system only applies at first instance – further applications to the court for specific costs protection are required if the case then goes onto the Court of Appeal and beyond to the Supreme Court 
The Government brought in the new system ahead of the CJEU giving judgment in Case C 530/11 European Commission v United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland  (13 February 2014). The CJEU did not address the post 1 April 2013 system but found that the previous regime was indeed non-compliant. Whilst the new system has addressed most of the CJEU’s criticisms, there are certainly still gaps, for example the current restriction of automatic cost capping to judicial review rather than statutory challenges (for instance to appeal decisions by the Secretary of State and inspectors) and the way in which automatic cost capping only applies at first instance.  
The Government consulted  in 2015 on proposals to amend the automatic cost capping system, partly to seek to comply with the CJEU ruling and partly to tighten up on the process where it could. Particularly contentious elements included proposing that claimants should submit a schedule of their financial resources when commencing the proceedings so as to allow for argument as to whether the cap should be increased in the particular case, a proposal that cost capping should only be confirmed once a claim had received permission to proceed to a full hearing (ie had been ruled to be arguable) and a proposal to double the standard caps to £10,000 (for individuals) and £20,000 for all other categories of claimant. 
The Government has now published on 18 November 2016 Costs Protection In Environmental Claims, its response to that consultation document. 
It has stepped back from the more contentious proposals. In summary it proposes that the Civil Procedure Rules be amended to:
– extend Aarhus cost capping to statutory challenges engaging EU law based statutes (this would bring to an end the nonsense of the current Venn litigation saga, in which the refusals of first Ouseley J on 15 August 2016  and then Lewison LJ on 3 November 2016  to grant permission for Ms Venn to appeal are worth a read – further background in this Landmark Chambers update).

– give more certainty that there will be costs protection in Court of Appeal cases “where this is necessary to prevent the proceedings from being prohibitively expensive for the claimant”. The Government will invite the Supreme Court to set equivalent rules to apply to appeals that it hears. So not an automatic system for appeals but clearer guidance.  

– refine a definition of “members of the public” who are entitled to Aarhus cost capping. I take this as code for removing the ability for local authority claimants to obtain automatic Aarhus cost capping protection, subject to the outcome of the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee’s consideration as to whether Hillingdon Council, and other local authorities engaged in the judicial review of the Government’s decision to proceed with HS2, qualify for protection under the Convention (following the ruling  of the Court of Appeal on 11 March 2015 that they do under the Civil Procedure Rules – which may have been drawn unnecessarily widely). 

– allow parties to make applications to reduce or increase the caps in particular cases. The test will be that the costs of proceedings must “neither be subjectively prohibitively expensive (they must not exceed the financial resources of the claimant) nor appear to be objectively unreasonable” (ie that set out by the CJEU in C-260/11 Edwards v Environment Agency  (11 April 2013). To make its case, the claimant would need to “provide information on significant assets, income, liabilities and expenditure. This information would take account of any third-party funding which the claimant had received”. 

– clarify that where there are multiple claimants, a separate cap applies to each claimant (reflecting incidentally the approach recently taken in R (Birchall Gardens LLP and Tarmac Trading Limited) v Hertfordshire County Council  (Holgate J, 4 November 2016)).

The Government does not intend to extend the Aarhus cost capping system to private nuisance cases (the subject of proceedings currently before the European Court of Human Rights: 39714/15 Austin v. UK) or similar non public law cases that raise environmental issues. Nor does it intend to increase the standard caps or to delay cost capping to beyond the permission stage.  
James Maurici QC has prepared a useful comparative table  of the proposals in the consultation paper and those in the response document. 
Whilst the Government seeks to limit the circumstances in which parties can apply to vary costs caps, stressing the risk of costs orders against parties that do so unreasonably, undoubtedly this will lead to additional pre-hearing sparring and uncertainty (which is not to criticise the proposal – it has sometimes been galling to see claimants obtain automatic costs protection at the standard level, when the claimants’ means may be at least equal that of the cash-strapped defendant authority).  
In my view the response document seeks to achieve a sensible and reasonable balance and for that reason will no doubt come under attack from all quarters…

Simon Ricketts 19.11.16
Personal views, et cetera