In the recent case of Richard Slade and Company Solicitors v Boodia & Anor  EWHC 2699 (QB), Mrs Justice Slade considered an appeal by the Solicitors Firm (the Defendant) from a Judgement given by Master James in the Senior Courts Costs Office.
The case surrounded Richard Slade and Company Solicitors “the firm” and Mr & Mrs Boodia “the clients”. The clients engaged the firm to act for them by way of signed retainer in 2013. The clients cancelled instructions with the firm in November 2016, by which point 61 bills had been rendered by the firm; 43 of which related to profit costs only and 18 related to disbursements only. The clients did not pay the final four bills and sought to have the bills assessed, a Claim Form was issued in November 2016 under The Solicitors Act 1974.
The following was included within the retainer between the firm and the clients
“Bills are rendered monthly in arrears. Our bills are detailed bills and are final in respect of the period to which they relate, save that disbursements (costs and expenses which we incur on your behalf) are normally billed separately and later than the bill for our fees in respect of the same period.”
The Defendant initially contended that the Claimant would not have the invoices which were rendered more than one year before 17th November 2016 assessed under s70 of The Solicitors Act 1974 as each invoice was a statute bill. Master James Ordered that a hearing to take place to determine:
“by virtue of them being final for the period covered by them only insofar as they relate to profit costs, the bills raised by the Defendant to the Claimants as set out in the claim form constitute interim statute bills under Part III of the Solicitors Act 1974, and if they are not such interim statute bills whether they are capable of being treated as a series of on account bills culminating in a statute bill, dated as per the last in the series.”
At the Hearing, Master James firstly found that the retainer between the parties did allow for interim statute bills to be raised, on the flip side the Master held that the “costs” for the purpose of statute interim bills include “fees, disbursements and expenses” and following on “As the individual 61 bills did not contain both profit costs and disbursements for the period they covered, Master James held that they were not interim statute bills.”
The Defendant sought to appeal the decision of Master James and permission to appeal was granted, the Defendant sought to appeal of five grounds; the same being:
- “The Master wrongly held that the terms of retainer were ‘somewhat ambiguous’ and that there was no entitlement on the part of the Appellant to render interim statute bills. The terms of the retainer were clear; there was an express agreed term permitting the Appellant to deliver interim statute bills whether or not disbursements were incurred were capable of being billed at that point or not.
- The Master wrongly concluded that the definition of ‘costs’ at CPR Rule 44.1 was of assistance in construing the scope of an ‘interim statute bill’.
- The Master gave insufficient weight to the decision of Costs Master Brown in Irvine v Slade & Colman Coyle, a previous authority on the interpretation of the Appellant’s retainer.
- The Master wrongly gave no weight (or, alternatively insufficient weight) to the Appellant’s submissions as to the effect of her decision.
- The Master wrongly rejected the Appellant’s alternative argument that finding a series of interim statute bills at the points at which the disbursement and fee invoices coincided would have been ‘too difficult’. This is not a valid legal basis for refusing to accede to this argument.”
All five grounds of appeal were dismissed by Slade J. However, within her Judgement, Slade J, clarified whether a statue interim bill was to include both profit costs and disbursements or whether they can be rendered separately as the firm did in this case.
When making her Judgement Slade J made reference to the Judgement of Spencer J in Bari v Rosen (t/a Rosen and Co Solicitors)  5 Costs LR 851:
“In my judgment the principles relevant to determining whether the invoices rendered by the Defendant are statute bills are clearly summarised by Spencer J in Bari. I adopt them with gratitude. Those principles are that:
“15. …a solicitor may contract with his client for the right to issue statute bills from time to time during the currency of the retainer. Such bills are known as “interim statute bills”. They are nevertheless final bills in respect of the work they cover, in that there can be no subsequent adjustment in the light of the outcome of the business. They are complete self-contained bills of costs to date.”
“17. Even if there was a contractual right to issue interim statute bills, it would be a question of fact whether any individual bill issued to the client was a statute bill. If there was no contractual entitlement to issue an interim statute bill, any interim bill issued could be no more than a request for payment on account.”
At paragraph 32, Slade J also held that “In my judgment Master James could have but did not find that the retainer did not provide for delivery of interim statute bills. The bills, the subject of agreement between the parties were not to be ‘complete self-contained bills of costs to date’. There were to be separate bills rendered at different times for profit costs and disbursements. There can be no subsequent adjustment of costs claimed in a statute bill in respect of the period to which they relate. The finality referred to in the agreement relates only to the solicitor’s profit costs not to the totality of the costs incurred or payable in respect of the period of the bill.”
Later in her Judgement Slade J held that it would be contrary to s70 of The Solicitors Act 1974 for the Court to assess the invoices raised by the Defendant as the Court would be asked to make an assessment of invoices without knowing what disbursements had been paid or were liable to be paid by the Solicitor during the same period.
It was found that for a bill to be an interim statute bill it must include both profit costs and disbursements for the period described upon the bill.
MRN’s take on this
Here at MRN we believe that the Judgement of Slade J appears to be a decision which accords with the relevant legislation with regard to an interim Bill being a complete bill for the relevant period. Should you find yourself with an issue surrounding Solicitor/Own Client assessments, whether you are the lay client or the Solicitor, do not hesitate to get in touch and our experienced team shall be more than happy to help.