CoA ‘plebgate’ ruling: The legal reaction

The Court of Appeal has thrown its weight behind Lord Justice Jackson and issued a stern warning that litigators must comply with court procedures or face restrictive spending sanctions.

Lawyers said the CoA ruling handed down by the Master of the Rolls Lord Dyson today came as little surprise, with the court looking to adopt a more robust approach to case management.

The ruling was seen as a major test of the principles adopted by Lord Justice Jackson, which were implemented in April. The ruling means Andrew Mitchell MP, who is pursuing The Sun in defamation proceedings, will have his legal spend limited to the cost of filing the claim and any court fees (27 November 2013).

Eversheds partner Glenn Newberry said: “The CoA has sent a clear message to practitioners that breaches of the rules will no longer be tolerated and sanctions introduced by the Jackson reforms, however severe they may appear, will be upheld. 

“There is now considerable pressure on solicitors to prepare, exchange and discuss their costs budgets in accordance with the rules, and ensure those budgets are monitored and adhered to as the case progresses.”

Vannin Capital consultant Nick Rowles-Davis agreed, adding: “It strongly underlines to all lawyers the need to take budgeting requirements seriously, whether they are a claimant or defendant – the court is showing who is boss when it comes to costs budgeting and the general view is these rules will be taken seriously.”

Norton Rose Fulbright partner Kirsty Hick continued: “The CoA has sent out a very clear and unequivocal message that litigation will be conducted differently from now on – compliance with the rules will be enforced more strictly, with no relief unless the default is trivial or there is a ‘good reason’.”

Atkins Thomson, which is representing Mitchell, had unsuccessfully attempted to have the order lifted in the summer, instructing Temple Garden Chambers’ Simon Browne QC. He told the court Atkins Thomson was a two-partner firm compared with heavyweights Simons Muirhead & Burton, which is acting for The Sun publishers News Group Newspapers. Two of three trainees at the firm were on maternity leave and a senior associate, who would normally deal with such issues, has recently left the firm. Furthermore, the second partner Mark Thomson is currently leading a raft of phone hacking claims against News International.

Practico managing director Andy Ellis commented: “It was evident that mere inadvertence or pressure of work – unkindly described by some as ‘the dog ate my homework’ form of excuse – will not get you home when seeking relief from sanctions.

“The new culture isn’t zero tolerance – the court was clear that it is not concerned with trivial breaches. But the wriggle room is now extremely narrow when delay will result and especially if the court is inconvenienced. It’s also telling that the first major decision that will help shape the administration of civil justice post-Jackson concerned compliance with costs management.  There have been whispers that the courts’ commitment to budgeting might be waning – Mitchell shows that this is far from the case.”

Hardwicke Chambers barrister Colm Nugent added: “Crucially, there is to be a shift away from doing justice in the individual case. The focus is now on the new approach to compliance, not exclusively on justice between the parties.”