Costs News

01 October 2015
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New SCCO judge highlights expertise of Costs Lawyers

The first female costs judge told Costs Lawyers last week how “highly regarded” they are at the Senior Courts Costs Office (SCCO), while also issuing a general warning to those who appear before her without sufficient preparation.

Giving the keynote address at the ACL conference in Manchester, Jennifer James (pictured), who took up her role at the SCCO this month, said that as well as being a personal achievement, she viewed her appointment as an achievement for women in the legal profession.

Addressing members at a packed Hilton Hotel, she observed that “there’s a reason why most solicitors and barristers don’t want to touch costs with a bargepole – because you need to know so much, and you are the people who know it”.

She said: “Costs Lawyers are very highly regarded at the SCCO and across England and Wales. We would certainly rather have a Costs Lawyer who knows his or her stuff than a solicitor or barrister who is determined to defend or attack every item in a bill of costs and really has only the vaguest idea of how to go about it.”

Master James recalled having a solicitor before her who said “blatantly” that he knew nothing about costs, and “was then very taken aback when I said to him, ‘Then you won’t be billing your client anything for being here today, will you?’”

She then recounted a time when she appeared as an advocate in a dispute over the costs of a planning matter and barrister on other side said that, as she was a costs specialist, “she can’t possibly know what she’s talking about”.

Not only did that barrister make the mistake of denigrating the practice of costs in front of a costs officer, she said, but he also gave evidence when he should not have done.

“Just because the SCCO is perhaps a little relaxed compared to some of the other courts up and down the country, it is still a proper court. It still has proper rules of evidence and you still need to comply with those,” she said.

“If you know you’re going to be challenging a £10,000 ATE premium, don’t come along with some stuff you downloaded off the internet that morning. It’s worth doing an hour of proper research, isn’t it, and reducing that to a witness statement signed with a statement of truth at the bottom? That, I can look at. That is proper evidence. And if you serve that on your opponent with a reasonable amount of time before the hearing, it makes their job in denying your arguments that much more difficult.”

Listing other ways to get on her wrong side in court, Master James advised: “I certainly don’t want to hear anybody in my courtroom quoting Latin at me. You’ll be surprised at how often people do, and when I ask what that means in English, they say ‘I dunno’.”

She continued: “Please stop doing points of dispute and replies on autopilot. It’s far from unusual to get points of dispute on something that isn’t even in the bill and that really is depressing. Choose your battles – [if you take] a bad point, it doesn’t mean that the judge is going to switch off and think that everything you’re saying is rubbish, but it is going to plant a seed… You get a couple of those points and he’s suddenly looking at everything in a slant-wise way, which cannot do your submissions any good.”

Further, she urged advocates not to appear in the SCCO and say ‘it’s not my bill’ or ‘these are not my points of dispute’. “I don’t care,” said Master James. “You don’t have any business being in court if you’re not fully prepared, so if you’ve gone through the points of dispute and there are points in there that you wouldn’t have made, that you know are not sustainable, try and get instructions to withdraw those.

“And if you can’t get those instructions, and I appreciate sometimes you can’t, simply say to the judge ‘I’m in your hands on this matter’. We understand what that means, we understand you can’t necessarily make concessions. It is much easier to go back to a client and say ‘Well, Master James did it’. I don’t care… so throw me under the bus.”

On court etiquette, she advised not to argue with your opponent in front of the judge, not to raise your voice, “and don’t on any account talk over the judge”. This happened at times when she sat as a deputy, and Master James said she hoped it would stop now she was full-time. “If it doesn’t, there’ll be trouble.”

Master James was a fellow of the Association of Law Costs Draftsmen, but did not become a Costs Lawyer because by that time she had moved out of practice and into education. She has been heavily involved in the ACL’s education activities since, including being a member of the education committee, and she said that while her involvement will now have to change, “it hopefully will not come to an end. Certainly that’s my intention”. 

There will be more coverage of the conference in the next issue of Costs Lawyer

Comments

George Robertson   29/04/2021 at 15:16

The UK Costs regime is like the law of the jungle compared to Germany - where costs of litigation are 3% of the value of a claim. This is of huge benefit to court users and society as a whole. Of course one can always opt out and arrange to pay a German solicitor anything he wishes - but otherwise its 3%. Period. No bills of costs and no points of disputes. Hurray! (and with respect no need for costs judges either).

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