Does an early admission of liability give full protection from legal costs in inquest proceedings in a related civil claim?

In short, the answer is no subject to some qualification. There are steps that can be taken to mitigate the potential exposure to the level of legal costs to be paid in subsequent related civil proceedings.

The recent case of Douglas v Ministry of Justice has reaffirmed the principles established on this issue in the case of Gibson’s Settlement Trusts decided over 30 years ago.

The Gibson principles relate to the recovery of costs in civil proceedings of a claimant’s involvement in an inquest based upon a conclusion that a claimant’s participation in those proceedings contributes, in any material way, to the formulation and settlement of a civil case arising from the facts and circumstances of the death in question.

Facts and issues in the Douglas case

The case concerned the death of a prisoner in HMP Belmarsh who committed suicide on 13 November 2013. The prisoner was aged 18 when he died and was serving a life sentence for murder.

The mother of the deceased brought a civil claim in relation to her son’s death against the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) who were responsible for running and managing the prison and Care UK who were responsible for providing health care services in the prison.

The claim form in the civil proceedings read:

“The claimant seeks a declaration and damages for breaches of Article 2, 3 and 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights, as incorporated by the Human Rights Act 1998, and /or damages for negligence arising from the death of Imran Douglas….”

The claim was issued on 11 November 2014 against both the MOJ and Care UK (the defendants) and stated the value of the claim to be between £15,000.01 and £50,000.

The Prison and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) had undertaken an investigation into Mr Douglas’ death and the PPO report was published in September 2014. The PPO found that HMP Belmarsh was not an appropriate allocation for Mr Douglas, who should, following sentence, have been returned to Feltham Young Offenders Institute. The PPO’s report listed, in detail, a number of institutional failings that led to Mr Douglas’ death.

On 13 November 2013 Mr Douglas was found by a prison officer hanging from a bed sheet in his cell.

As is usual, in these circumstances, an inquest was held into Mr Douglas’ death and the inquest proceedings ran in tandem to the civil claim.

On 8 October 2015 both defendants provided full admissions of liability 5 days before the start of the inquest hearing.

Mr Douglas’ mother was legally represented in the inquest proceedings and argued, in the civil proceedings, that she should be allowed her costs in preparing for and attending the inquest hearing, as reasonably and necessarily incurred in her preparation and investigation of the civil claim. The defendants argued that the claimant should not be awarded those costs in the civil claim because of the existence of the full admission of liability.

The claimant’s total costs claim in relation to her involvement in the inquest were around £85,000.

The court’s decision in the Douglas case

The respective arguments as to costs were heard by Master Leonard who gave his conclusions as to the recoverability of costs on the Gibson principles.

Four key points to note

  1. The nature and extent of the joint admissions made by both the defendants on 8 October 2015 were “full, unqualified admissions of liability to every claim endorsed on the claim form, including all of the specified breaches of the ECHR and the Claimant’s right to declaratory relief”. There was no doubt about the nature of the admissions made.
  2. As to the claimant’s argument that the entire costs of attendance at the inquest hearing, which lasted a number of days, were necessary to establish the quantum of damages and secure vindication, Master Leonard was not persuaded by this argument. It is entirely conceivable that the absence of full and unqualified admission by the defendants in advance of the inquest hearing might well have changed the Master’s decision on this point.
  1. Although the inquest was able to provide further evidence in relation to the nature and extent of the defendants’ failures, nothing that emerged from the inquest would materially have changed what the admissions were likely to be and/or the assessment of the amount of damages in the civil claim.
  1. Notwithstanding the defendants’ admissions, Master Leonard concluded “it would be wrong to disallow all the time spent at the inquest” on the basis that it did nothing to contribute, in any material way, to the formulation and settlement of the claimant’s case.

The claimant was in principle entitled, subject to an assessment as to their reasonableness and proportionality, to recover the following:

  • The costs of preparing witness evidence for the inquest.
  • The reasonable and proportionate costs of gathering the evidence to allow the claimant to present her case.
  • The costs of securing disclosure from the defendants and their witness evidence.
  • The costs of making submissions at the inquest to secure a conclusion (the Master referred to this as the verdict) as this would assist the claimant’s civil claim.
  • The costs of attending the giving of the conclusion.

What to take away

The decision in Douglas is a reminder of the need for potential defendants to give careful consideration to the making of appropriate written admissions of liability, as early as possible, where inquest proceedings are in train and, there is some concern as to exposure in subsequent or related civil proceedings for damages arising out of the death.

Please speak to Kevin Duce if you have any questions.

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