The Supreme Court has today handed down its much-awaited decision in Coventry -v- Lawrence.

The issue before the court was whether the costs regime introduced by the Access to Justice Act 1999, specifically a claimant's right to recover additional liabilities, was an infringement of a defendant’s rights under Article 6 and/or Article 1 of the First Protocol of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), namely, the right to a fair trial and the right to peaceful enjoyment of property. The relevant provisions of the Access to Justice Act have now been repealed and replaced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) but there had been concern that a finding of incompatibility in this case could pave the way for compensation claims against the UK Government.

By a majority of 5:2, the Supreme Court has held that the pre-LASPO costs regime is compatible with the ECHR.

In reaching this decision the court considered the respondents’ submission that the 1999 regime discriminated against non-rich defendants to be of critical importance; the increased costs risk of potential exposure to additional liabilities encouraged settlement of otherwise strong cases, so depriving those defendants of access to justice. The majority focussed on whether the 1999 regime struck a balance between the rights of these non-rich defendants and the legitimate aim of expanding access to justice. The question was not one of fairness, but one of balance.

The majority found that the pre-LASPO regime was a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim of expanding access to justice. Dissenting, Lord Clarke and Lady Hale considered that, while the aim was legitimate, the operation of the pre-LASPO costs regime was disproportionate and discriminatory.

The decision will be a relief for the Government and for claimant solicitors who had brought cases under pre-LASPO conditional fee agreements. Watch out for detailed discussion in our update to follow shortly.