The High Court has allowed a will beneficiary to challenge a costs bill which rose significantly from its original estimate.

Kent firm Thomson Snell & Passmore had been retained to administer the estate of Philippa Cunnick, who died in 2019, by the sole executor. The firm’s original estimate for its fees was between £10,000 and £15,000, but the total final bill was £54,410.

The accounts have already been approved by Cunnick’s daughter, who is the other beneficiary, and the executor, Cunnick’s brother. But Cunnick’s son, Daniel Kenig, contended that the administration of the estate was not complicated and the costs were ‘grossly excessive’.

Costs Judge Brown, ruling in Kenig v Thomson Snell & Passmore, ordered an assessment of all the bills, accepting that the firm was entitled to finality and certainty but finding there were special circumstances to justify an assessment.

‘In my view it is plain that the sums claimed in the bills call for an explanation and amount in themselves to special circumstances,’ he said. ‘The extent of the discrepancy between the initial estimate and the costs claimed is very substantial indeed - a multiple of some four to five. Indeed, it is notable how quickly after instruction the estimate was exceeded.

‘Whilst I have some concerns that the claimant may himself have contributed to the costs being above the initial estimate, I am not satisfied that such information which is currently available does justify the discrepancy, or indeed come close to doing so.’

Brown said there was ‘some force’ in the argument that the administration of the estate looked ‘relatively uncomplicated’, notwithstanding its £2.9m value. The estate itself consisted of some stocks and shares, cash in various accounts, small personal effects, a freehold property and two timeshares. The amounts in the bills, he said, ‘simply look globally and in aggregate high’ against the work that might reasonably be anticipated.

The rate for the senior fee earner and partner was £385 per hour, and for the other principal fee earner £255 per hour. Brown expressed ‘some concerns’ about the extent of the involvement of these two fee earners and also that there may have been a significant amount of work which called for ‘little legal input and was administrative in nature - but which has been charged at substantial hourly rates and for lengthy periods’.

Following the ruling, Thomson Snell & Passmore said it had been granted permission to appeal and was considering what steps to take.

Joanna Pratt, senior partner at Thomson Snell & Passmore, said: ‘We are transparent about costs from the start of any matter, but sometimes they become higher than anticipated due to unforeseen circumstances or matters beyond our control. If this happens, we will always aim to communicate this with our client at the earliest opportunity, and explain the reason for the increase in costs.

'Due to client confidentiality, we cannot discuss the specifics of this case, beyond clarifying that our client was not the person seeking an assessment of our costs.’