Court costs awarded in recent years in Cork are vulnerable to challenge after a High Court ruling, according to a report in the Irish Examiner that quotes the solicitor involved, in a landmark case on the issue.
The newspaper says that the total figure open to challenge could reach into hundreds of thousands of euro, after the High Court struck down the scale of costs operated by Cork’s County Registrar, saying that Cork City Council had “actively invoked, exploited and endorsed an unlawful system of taxation of costs” drawn up by the Registrar for civil cases at the Circuit Court.
The scale capped the legal costs payable to legal teams, irrespective of the nature and extent of work carried out.
The Examiner quotes solicitor Barry Sheehan, who took the initial challenge against Cork City Council two years ago, as claiming that it allowed defendants to deploy a “blanket defence to deny everything”, dragging out cases and “forcing plaintiffs to prove matters which could and should have been conceded”.
“They were able to adopt this ‘deny everything, concede nothing’ approach, safe in the knowledge there would be no costs penalty for their defendant clients,” Sheehan told the newspaper.
This blocked access to justice for some claimants who would not have had the money to take cases, he added.
In a decision published this month, the High Court imposed a costs order for judicial review proceedings against Cork City Council.
The established practice was for the registrar to grant an amount based on the value of the overall award, rather than the legal work carried out, with an indicative sum of €2,500 plus 12.5% of the value of the award provided for fully contested cases.
Mr Sheehan challenged this after a client brought personal-injury proceedings against the council in May 2015 following a fall from a bicycle, citing a pothole in the road.
The case was settled for €9,500 plus taxed costs, and Mr Sheehan billed the council for all work, from the accident in 2012 to settlement in 2017, totalling €37,000 for the case.
In response, and in accordance with the scale, the council provided a cheque for €10,201. Mr Sheehan said his bill included not only solicitors’ costs, but also barristers’ fees and expenses for expert witnesses, such as doctors and road engineers.
The High Court determined that the council has to pay the applicant’s costs of the judicial review proceedings, and that the applicant was entitled to the costs of the costs hearing – by far the most expensive aspect of the proceedings.
The solicitor told the Examiner that the case could have ramifications, as almost every case in which the council and insurance companies have been involved for at least the past six years have operated on the basis of this scale.
The newspaper quoted Cork City Council as saying that it had sought to minimise costs to be paid to plaintiffs to appropriate and justifiable amounts.
A spokesperson said: “The city council has at all times complied with the findings of courts, and of the County Registrar in respect of costs, once a ruling is made.”
The Law Society of Ireland told the Examiner it could not comment on individual cases, but added that, generally, scales of costs are “anti-competitive, and have been for many years now”.