Two fee-earners are not needed for attending a witness or client – and you cannot charge for solicitors travelling to clients.
These were two of the observations from senior costs judge Master Gordon-Saker in a ruling that addressed almost line-by-line what could be reasonably claimed by solicitors.
Gordon-Saker was asked in Fuseon Ltd, R to assess the £428,000 claimed against the Criminal Cases Unit of the Legal Aid Agency by Lancashire estate agent Fuseon Limited. The company had brought a successful private prosecution against a fraudulent director of the business, instructing specialist central London firm Edmonds Marshall McMahon Limited.
The costs claim was determined in November 2017 by an LAA case manager in the sum of £180,000, which was increased to £240,000, with more than 1,000 items of disbursements and profit costs claimed for. It was not accepted by the case manager that Fuseon had no choice but to instruct a London firm, and he reduced the £350 claimed for grade A fee earners to £217. He also reduced the travelling time and expenses to those that would have been reasonable for solicitors based in the north-west. The claimant continued to appeal this outcome and the matter was eventually remitted to the senior costs master for further directions.
Gordon-Saker noted this was not a particularly complex case, but that the work was properly done in London and that Fuseon was entitled to the costs of investigation as well as prosecution. He said the matters elevating the case above guideline rates were the specialism of the solicitors instructed and the passage of time (roughly 18 months from speaking with lawyers to the court conviction). In any costs case, the master said the guideline hourly rates which informed the case manager’s decision now tended to be ‘used as a starting position rather than as carved in stone’.
Gordon-Saker allowed some of the time spent travelling from London, but said it was not reasonable for a client to pay a solicitor to travel to him. He stated that the client was expected to travel to their solicitor.
The master said reasonable time spent in inter-fee discussions was properly allowable, as it was difficult to delegate tasks to junior fee-earners without instructing them what to do.
On the other hand, two fee-earners attending on a witness or the client would rarely be reasonable without a specific reason. Gordon-Saker noted: ‘Lawyers should be reasonably adept, like most people, at speaking or listening and writing at the same time.’ For the same reason, he disallowed more than one fee-earner attending trial together with counsel.
The master said the investigation of the defendant’s social media presence, the scheduling of outstanding action, the creation of the jury bundle, the drafting of notices of additional evidence and contacting witnesses during trial were all tasks of fee-earners. Photocopying bundles, however, was not.