Boxing promoter Frank Warren has been refused permission to appeal a costs judge’s ruling that the assignment of two conditional fee agreements (CFAs) – under which he owed his solicitors nearly £1m – was valid.
The High Court ruled that he had no prospect of successfully arguing that the CFAs had not been validly assigned after his previous solicitors closed, nor that Master Leonard had been wrong to apply the Court of Appeal’s ruling on assignment, Budana.
The dispute involved two cases where Mr Warren instructed his longstanding solicitor Hanna Basha, who was originally at Carter-Ruck, then at PSB Law and, from September 2013 to January 2016, at Hill Dickinson, the defendant in the case.
The cases, which both started when Ms Basha was with PSB, were against boxer Ricky Burns for breach of contract and against Mr Burns’ manager, Alex Morrison, for defamation.
Mr Warren was awarded damages and obtained default costs certificates in both cases. However, he has not recovered anything from either due to the defendants’ bankruptcies.
Master Leonard was asked to rule on two preliminary points in Mr Warren’s challenge to Hill Dickinson’s £923,000 costs bill. Both went against Mr Warren, but he only appealed the finding that the CFAs were validly assigned.
Ms Basha left PSB on 14 September 2013. On 30 September, PSB ceased to practise as a firm of solicitors but remained open to conclude administrative matters. On 25 November, PSB entered into an ‘agreement to assign’ with Hill Dickinson. The assignment date was stated as 1 October 2013.
Mr Warren argued that, having found that PSB Law ceased to practise on 30 September 2013, the judge was wrong to conclude that the CFAs remained capable of valid assignment.
Mr Justice Pepperall, sitting with Master Haworth as assessor, said: “In my judgment, the master was right… to regard there to be no material distinction between a law firm’s ceasing to carry out personal injury work (as in Budana) and a firm’s ceasing to practise (as in this case).
“Secondly, the master was also right to hold that PSB Law was not in breach (let alone repudiatory breach) of the CFAs, but that – even if it had been – such agreements would not have been terminated unless Mr Warren had accepted the alleged repudiation. Here, he instead consented to the transfer of the CFAs to Hill Dickinson.”
The judge also found “no sensible distinction to be made” between the case and last year’s Supreme Court case of Plevin, where the defendant argued for ineffective assignment on two occasions when the claimant’s solicitors reorganised itself, first into an LLP and then into a limited company.
Pepperall J said: “In my judgment, there is no valid distinction between PSB’s ceasing to practise altogether and the closure of the partnership in Plevin.
“In both cases, the firm with which the client entered into the CFA ceased to practise, and yet, in Plevin, the Supreme Court had no truck with the argument that there had not been a valid assignment.
Mr Warren also claimed he had not given informed consent to the assignments, but the judge dismissed this too.
“Upon his findings, Master Leonard was clearly entitled to find that these CFAs had been transferred to Hill Dickinson with Mr Warren’s informed consent.
“Indeed, there were obvious advantages. Novation ensured that Mr Warren continued to be represented by Ms Basha in whom he had confidence and who knew his cases.
“Further, it ensured that he still had the benefit of the CFAs and, had matters turned out differently, he might still have been able to recover success fees from his opponents since the novated CFAs were pre-LASPO agreements.”
He concluded that the proposed appeal had no real prospect of success and that there was no other compelling reason why it should be heard. Accordingly, permission to appeal was refused.