Legal Update by Tim Wilkinson.
In Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service v Susan Ann Veevers  EWHC 2550, HHJ Pearce upheld a decision, of DDJ Harris, that the costs of an inquest were recoverable. This was despite the GMFRS having stated, in pre-inquest correspondence, that “any claims that will be pursued by you on behalf of their deceased family members will be met in full”. The judgment contains a review of the relevant authorities and a helpful summary of the main principles.
Prior to the inquest, the parties engaged in what was described by DDJ Harris as “a costs game”. GMFRS’ solicitors’ letter, from which the above quote is extracted, also stated that their clients were willing to compensate the estate and the dependents ‘for any loss which they may prove to be attributable to the incident”. However, the letter earlier stated that their “clients have made no assessment of the potential for liability to the estate and dependants of Stephen Hunt but they have instructed us to set out their position in relation to any potential claim which may be brought for the family of the deceased”. The Claimant responded making clear their position; that the intention to compensate could be withdrawn at any time and so they would continue to prepare for the inquest until liability was admitted. GMFRS’ response was to say that there was no need for a letter of claim and to reiterate that the claims would be met “without reduction”. The Claimant responded with “I am happy not to send a letter of claim based on your offer to deal with any claim for compensation without reduction for contributory negligence”.
The costs of the inquest were claimed in the sum of £141,000. GMFRS’ contention was that it had clearly and unequivocally accepted that it would meet the claims, regardless of what any investigations may throw up. The Claimant maintained that no admission had been made and that such equivocation meant it was necessary for the legal team to attend the inquest.
HHJ Pearce reviewed the main authorities, including Ross v The Owners of the Ship ‘Bowbelle’  2 Lloyd’s Rep 196 and Roach v Home Office  QB 256. He derived a number of principles, summarised as follows:
1) Reasonable and proportionate inquest costs may be recoverable, so long as they can properly be said to be incidental to the civil claim;
2) Such costs are not recoverable if liability is no longer in issue;
3) When examining whether liability is in issue, all circumstances must be considered. The central plank is likely to be whether liability has been admitted;
4) A court is entitled to look with care at anything less than an unqualified admission to see whether the defendant may resile or if matters are left in issue;
5) The fact that it is not an unequivocal admission, where one could have been made, may entitle the court to justify a conclusion that the defendant might exercise its right to resile;
6) If costs are justified on the above principles, the fact that there may be other reasons for legal representation (e.g. equality of arms) does not negate those costs being recoverable: “It is enough that the attendance to secure relevant evidence in relation to matters in issue was a material purpose for the attendance”.
Ultimately, HHJ Pearce concluded that GMFRS’ letters did not amount to, and could not be equated with, an admission of liability. DDJ Harris rightly did not treat the letters as decisive and properly concluded that the Claimant was entitled to treat the open statements as capable of withdrawal (despite pleading reliance upon them in the Particulars of Claim). This was sufficient to distinguish Bowbelle, above, in which the court treated the correspondence as an admission (referring to negligence having been admitted). The costs were recoverable as being ‘of and incidental’ to the claim.
This is a useful review of the relevant authorities and a salutary lesson to defendants who are seeking to avoid paying the costs of an inquest. Anything less than an unequivocal admission will be scrutinised with care and, in the end, may well leave the defendant in the position of having openly stated they will meet the claim, without the benefit of minimising costs. There is, too, a cautionary note for claimants. In paragraph 62, HHJ Pearce referred to the Claimant accepting, or acquiescing, when agreeing not to send a letter of claim (see above quote): “In an appropriate case, a paying party who could show that it had acted to its detriment in reliance upon such a statement might persuade the court……it was not reasonable for it to meet costs that would have been avoided had the receiving party raised at the time the issue it now takes”. An example may be where a defendant shows that, had proper concerns been raised, it would have admitted liability. Whilst this may seem unlikely, claimants ought to give serious thought to any ‘acquiescence’ of an equivocal statement.