High Court makes third-party costs order against UKIP for blocking settlement of libel claim

Warby J: extra votes weighed against “certainty of additional costs”

The High Court has made a third-party costs order against UKIP, after the party took a “political” decision to block the settlement of a libel claim against one of its MEPs.

Mr Justice Warby said that, by the beginning of March 2015, “a decision had been taken at a high level within UKIP” that the claim should be settled, but not until after the general election in May.

“The decision-makers knew that [Jane Collins’] cause was hopeless, and that settlement was the only realistic option, but decided to delay that step,” Warby J said.

“They did so knowing this would in all probability make settlement more difficult and more expensive, having reckoned that this risk was outweighed by the prospects of political gain (or avoiding political damage).

“This was a process of calculation in which extra votes were expressly weighed in the balance against the certainty of additional costs, and the risk that these might be unaffordable.”

The court heard in Barron and others v Collins and UKIP [2018] EWHC 253 (QB) that three Labour MPs representing the Rotherham area – Sir Kevin Barron, John Healey and Sarah Champion – successfully sued Ms Collins for libel following a speech she gave to the UKIP party conference in September 2014.

Warby J ordered Ms Collins, in February 2017, to pay each claimant £54,000 and the costs of the action, and to make an interim payment on account of £120,000.

The judge said “none of this has been paid” and the claimants did not anticipate “significant recovery”. They notified UKIP that they would seek a third-party costs order in July 2017.

The claimants argued that this was became of “UKIP’s control/funding in this litigation due to political interest/benefit”. Counsel for UKIP responded that it provided “some assistance” to Ms Collins but “did not seek control of the litigation” and its “primary concern” was to help her settle the claims against her.

Warby J said the total costs served on Ms Collins and UKIP by the claimants were just under £670,000, but he was being asked to “rule on the principles of recoverability, not the amount”.

He said it was agreed that any order he made “would be in addition to, and not in substitution for, the existing costs order against Ms Collins, who would remain jointly and severally liable”.

Warby J said there was also no dispute over the period over which UKIP’s financial support lasted, from early December 2014 to early or mid-June 2015.

He found that from 2 March 2015 “at the latest”, RMPI, the London law firm acting for Ms Collins, “was in receipt of instructions from UKIP, endorsed by Ms Collins, to avoid the case coming to a conclusion by settlement or otherwise before the election”.

Warby J said Andrew Reid, the law firm’s senior partner, was treasurer of UKIP and “it appears, UKIP’s landlord”, with the firm’s offices in the same building.

The judge said the party “took a deliberate, informed and calculated decision, for reasons of party political advantage, to ensure that the case was not settled before the general election”.

He went on: “In my judgment, it very probably did thereby prevent a settlement that it had been advised should be made and which would otherwise have occurred quite swiftly.

“The likelihood is that, but for its role, the case would have settled. At any rate it had a causative role. The consequence was that the action continued until the acceptance of the offer of amends.

“The decision to delay meant that by this time the costs had escalated to a point that made settlement unaffordable for the party (or so it decided).”

Mr Justice Warby said that although Ms Collins’ decision to continue the case as a litigant in person between June 2015 and January 2017 was not caused by UKIP, there was “every likelihood” that a settlement in spring 2015 could have obviated the need for an assessment hearing.

Warny J concluded that it was “just and reasonable to make UKIP jointly and severally liable with Ms Collins in respect of the claimants’ reasonable costs incurred between 20 March and 24 June 2015, and the claimants’ reasonable costs of and caused by the assessment hearing in January 2017”.

He added that, “in principle, the party should also be liable for the claimants’ reasonable costs of enforcement proceedings following the decision on quantum”.

He said a “limited” third-party costs order should be made against UKIP to reflect the impact of the party’s decisions to “ensure for party political and specifically electoral reasons that the claimants’ action should not be settled before the general election”.