The High Court has denied the Lord Chancellor relief from sanctions in a case involving an attempt by the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) to reclaim £160,000 plus interest from a former law firm 16 years after the final payments were made.
The court heard that payments on account were made by the Legal Services Commission (LSC), the LAA’s predecessor, between 1994 and 1998, under two legal aid certificates. Most of the payments were made to Vallance & Co, bought by Taylor Willcocks in 1997. Taylor Willcocks merged with Howell Jones in 2012.
Mr Justice Globe said that Taylor Willcocks made no application for a detailed assessment of the sums due under the legal aid certificates and “it did not appear to be disputed” that in those circumstances the result would be a ‘nil assessment’.
Delivering judgment in The Lord Chancellor v The Former Partnership of Taylor Willcocks and others  EWHC 3664 (QB ), Globe J said the LSC carried out a nil assessment in January 2008, almost 10 years after the final payments were made.
There was an exchange of correspondence but the judge said “nothing significant” occurred until the summer of 2013, when the LAA sent out a letter before action.
This was followed by more correspondence until January 2014, when the LAA issued a claim form, serving it in May 2014, the court heard. This was followed by an application, 11 days later, to extend time for service of particulars of claim.
Globe J said the particulars of claim were eventually “purported” to have been served in September 2014. Meanwhile, an application to extend time had been refused in June by Master Leslie, relying on the Mitchell ruling.
In its appeal to the High Court, the LAA argued, among other things that Master Leslie had failed to consider all the relevant circumstances of the case.
Globe J said counsel for the LAA argued that regard should have been given to the fact that failure had no impact on other court users, did not cause any other hearings to be vacated or require the relisting of any trial.
Counsel for the former law firm and three of its partners – Colin Thorpe, Paul Trim and Sarah Addison – argued that Master Leslie had applied Mitchell correctly, and the case did not require further consideration under the ruling in Denton, which was not available to him at the time.
Globe J said the defendants argued that even if Denton had been applied, the result would have been the same: “The claim is almost unbelievably stale. The work was allegedly done 16-20 years ago.
“After discussions about it between 2006 and 2008, there was then an unexplained delay of five years when nothing happened. The defendants are now prejudiced in defending the claim so long after the event.
“There was no good reason for not informing the defendants that a claim form had been issued on 13 January 2014 and not being candid in communications in relation to any difficulties in relation to the particulars of claim.”
Globe J said there was “considerable force” in the defendants’ arguments. He concluded:” In my judgment, the decision of the Master was one that he was entitled to reach. It was within the generous ambit within which a reasonable disagreement is possible.
“I am unable to find it was wholly wrong. It was a considered decision applying the Mitchell guidance correctly. It stands up to scrutiny even when studied alongside the later, amplified Denton guidance. The appeal must be dismissed.”
Globe J added that as costs followed the event, the Lord Chancellor would have to pay the defendants’ costs.