How do you get around costs budgeting? One might have thought by incurring considerable costs before the CCMC: Practice direction 3E 7.4 states that the court may not approve costs incurred before the date of a budget. In CIP Properties Ltd v Galliford Try Infrastructure [2015] EWHC 481 Coulson J came up with an order which would prevent parties to litigation trying to get around the process. In the recent case of GSK Project Management Ltd v QPR Holdings Limited [2015] EWHC 2274 Stuart-Smith J made a similar order (will it become known as a ‘Coulson Order’ or a ‘CIP Order?)

In GSK Stuart-Smith J was managing the costs in a dispute over works carried out at Queens Park Rangers’ Loftus Road ground. The claim was essentially for £805,675 of unpaid sums due under the contract and there was a counterclaim for defective works.

The claimant’s costs budget was for £824,038 and it stated that over £310,000 had been incurred already. The budget therefore exceeded the sums at stake. The defendant’s budget was £455,554 in total although, as the judge commented, a comparison was not appropriate because of the very different hourly rates; comparing the hours was therefore more illuminating.

‘Broad brush’ or detailed approach? Stuart-Smith J commented that experience in the TCC had shown that most costs budgeting reviews can and should be carried out quickly and with the application of a fairly broad brush. He said that ‘only exceptionally will it be appropriate or necessary to go through a Precedent H with a fine tooth-comb, analysing the makeup of figures in detail.’ This, however, he considered an exceptional case because the aggregate sum was so disproportionate to the sums at stake and the length and complexity of the case.

Proportionality: The judge’s starting point was that a case would have to be wholly exceptional to render a costs budget of £824,000 proportional for the recovery of £805,000 plus interest. It was not. There were no novel or difficult issues of law, there was only a handful of witnesses, trial had only been listed for 4 days and it was not a document heavy case. He took the view that good reason would need to be shown to justify more than half the figure of £825,000 on proportionality grounds.

Reasonableness: the judge rejected the submission that his starting point should be the other party’s budget as parties have different roles and responsibilities. However he accepted he should have regard to it as it ‘may provide useful indicators’. The judge rebuffed a submission that the Defendant had underestimated the resources necessary for the litigation with the comment that such a submission would “probably require evidence and not mere assertion”. That evidence was not available.

Pre-action costs: the lesson to draw from the judge’s comments is that if pre-action costs/hours are high then a judge is likely to expect solicitors to be ‘well on top of the case by the time of issue’. If little progress has been made the judge is likely to consider the time has ‘not been reasonably or proportionately incurred.’ The judge said that if he could approve pre-action costs he would have approved £13,500 rather than the £43,067 incurred.

Issue/statements of case: the incurred costs for this phase were £246,908. The judge was very critical of the lack of explanation of what had been done during the hours billed given they were so high. He ultimately concluded that £115,000 would have been a reasonable and proportionate expenditure on this phase.

Remaining phases: the judge took a hatchet to the remaining phases of the budget on the basis of what he considered reasonable and proportionate. By the time he had finished he had reduced it to £422,622 which, as “it turns out” (he observed), was almost exactly the same as his first assessment of proportionality of the sums being estimated. He then rounded the budget up to £425,000.

The court’s difficulty: The problem for the judge was that his £425,000 would have involved substituting his figures for incurred costs which he was not entitled to do. The judge referred to the options Coulson J had set out in CIP Properties (AIPT) Limited v Galliford Try Infrastructure Limited [2015] EWHC 481 (TCC) namely:

  1. Order a new budget
  2. Declining to approve the claimant’s costs budget
  3. Set budget figures and allowing the relevant party to take their chances on incurred costs
  4. Refuse to allow any further costs

Coulson J settled on (iii) but identified the difficulty: it potentially enabled the claimant to ride roughshod over the budgeting process. The incurred costs were untouchable (£310,000 in GSK ) in the budgeting process but if they were allowed on assessment, they would potentially enable the claimant to exceed the budget set at the CCMC.

Coulson J’s way around this was to say effectively to any subsequent costs judge, “if you assess the costs incurred above my figure then you will have to reduce the amount for later work because my estimate will need to be adjusted accordingly.” He put it in a more judicial way setting out the figure he approved for each phase and making the following comment: “I take that figure into account when assessing each element of the prospective/estimated costs dealt with below. To the extent that the claimant recovers more than £x.xx on assessment under this head, it would mean that more work had been legitimately done in the earlier stages of the case than I thought, which would in turn mean that less remained to be done in the future. Thus the prospective costs figures approved below would fall to be reduced by an equivalent sum.”

Stuart-Smith J adopted the same approach and stated “in this way the incurred costs/approved costs budget will be a total of £425,000.” He referred succintly to “97(a) of CIP Properties”.

The judge concluded by describing the costs estimate as “grossly excessive” being overstated by almost 100%. He made the claimant pay the costs of the issue and ordered the claimant’s solicitors to bring the terms of the judgment to the attention of any paying client who had retained them and to notify the court when it had been done.