A recent High Court case on costs could prove essential reading for clients who have cases in the magistrates' courts.

The case
In the recent case of Taylor & Anor v Burton[1], the tenants had issued proceedings against the landlord alleging that the damp in the house was so severe it constituted a statutory nuisance. The landlord opposed the application on the basis that they were not the party responsible for the statutory nuisance when the proceedings had commenced. They argued that the tenants were responsible as they had failed to allow access and/or failed to heat the house properly. By the time the matter came to trial, the nuisance had been abated.

The magistrates' court concluded that a statutory nuisance had existed, and the landlord was responsible for it. The tenants sought to claim an additional £34,412.60 from the landlord in legal costs. The landlord argued that it was disproportionate and requested an adjournment to fully set out their objections to the amount claimed. The magistrates' court refused and proceeded with the matter. The landlord put forward a number of objections to the amount of costs claimed, including that it was unreasonable that the tenants had instructed London lawyers, the cost of their travel was excessive, there was an unnecessary site visit, the number of hours the solicitors claimed for the work, the grade of the fee earner at the solicitors was too high, the costs of the solicitors attending trial were excessive and that they had used an expensive expert based in Newcastle. The magistrates' court ordered the landlord to pay £29,079.80 to the tenants for their legal costs.

The landlord appealed the magistrates' court decision. Their first argument was that the magistrates' court had failed to give adequate reasons for their decision to reject the landlords’ arguments that they were not at fault for the statutory nuisance. The landlord claimed that it was the tenants who had failed to allow them access to the property to carry out the repairs and/or adequately heat the property. Secondly, they argued the magistrates had failed to give any reasons for rejecting the landlords’ challenges to the amount of costs that were claimed by the tenants.

The High Court dismissed the appeal on the first point and stated that the magistrates were provided with sufficient evidence for them to conclude that the landlords had not done “all that is reasonable” to abate the nuisance. 

Dealing with the issue of the amount of costs, the High Court held that, it was impossible to establish whether the magistrates had considered whether the costs sought by the tenants were proportionate. The High Court stated that it was bound to conclude that the magistrates had insufficiently articulated their decision. They held it is important that the parties have a basic understanding as to how a sum is arrived at and that their objections on key issues have been considered. The High Court also found that in refusing the adjournment that the landlord had sought, the magistrates increased the risk of them not considering everything in detail.

The High Court, therefore, allowed the appeal on the amount awarded by the justices and reverted the case back to the magistrates' court to re-evaluate the amount of costs ordered.

In practice, when dealing with any matter in the magistrates' courts it is not uncommon for the magistrates to try to deal with the costs in a broad-brush approach. This case emphasises how important it is for parties to fully consider the costs position of not only their own costs but also those of the other side in advance of the trial. If necessary pre-prepared objections, ideally in writing, should be drafted and filed.

This case is very valuable for parties involved in magistrates proceedings. It is hoped that moving forwards magistrates will be dissuaded from taking a broad-brush approach and will give costs the consideration that is required. Any party who may be at risk of an adverse cost order should use this case to persuade the court to consider in detail the cost schedules claimed, deal with each and every objection raised and then give a judgment on the amounts so all parties are aware why the amount of costs have been awarded. Magistrates courts should also be asked to record their findings in writing on the court file.

Click here for the full judgment. 

For more information

Should you require further detail, please do not hesitate to contact Suzanne Gregson or any member of the housing litigation team.

[1] (2021) EWHC 1454 (Admin)