A costs judge has disallowed a claim for £16,200 costs on the basis that solicitors terminated a conditional fee agreement without good cause.

Master Howarth, ruling in Murray & Anor v Richard Slade and Company Ltd, said a London firm had no basis for ending a retainer with its former client on the ground of any failure to pay costs.

The claimant James Murray had asked for assessment of invoices delivered by the defendant, his former solicitors, in relation to a private retainer agreed in 2016. Murray had instructed the firm to advise on another professional negligence dispute with solicitors he had previously used for a property dispute.

It was asserted by Richard Slade that the retainer was terminated when Murray had requested the return of his papers in July 2018, but the claimant said there was no evidence that such a request was made, or if it was, whether that amounted to a termination.

Murray told the court of his ‘frustration’ at the lack of progress on his case: despite the CFA being dated August 2016, he claimed that work on preparing the letter of claim was not commenced until around May 2017. Despite accepting that a verbal request for papers may have been made, it was submitted by Murray that he urged the firm to continue with the case, but Richard Slade had refused to do so.

The firm told the court that Murray’s conduct gave it grounds to terminate the retainer. It was explained that the parties had agreed a fixed fee which could be increased depending on the barrister instructed or any expert witness called, but trust between the parties had broken down over subsequent months leading to Murray demanding the return of papers.

Master Howarth quoted from an email from he firm in August 2018 which asked for a £20,000 payment and stated that the retainer could be ‘concluded in an orderly way’. The master said this email presumed the retainer still existed and referred to how it might end, not that it had ended.

He said there was no basis to terminate the CFA based on any failure to pay costs, and Murray had not ended the retainer by seeking the return of his files. He disallowed the claim for £16,200 and ordered the defendant pay the claimant’s £21,000 costs of the provisional issues hearing.