The High Court has rejected a Watford law firm’s attempt to join Irwin Mitchell (IM) and Hugh James (HJ) as lead solicitors in a piece of group litigation, saying it would likely lead to “a long-running forensic Punch and Judy show” between them all.
Mr Justice Turner said  the risk of Collins Solicitors’ involvement increasing costs, duplicating effort and leading to delays, misunderstandings and disagreements was “not merely theoretical”.
The firm was seeking to add itself as one of the lead solicitors to group litigation brought on behalf of British Steel workers who claim their exposure to harmful fumes and dust resulted in various industrial diseases.
The judge said Collins’ application was “strongly resisted” by IM and HJ.
He observed that “even with the most conscientious re-distribution of duties between an expanded cohort of lead solicitors, there is likely in most cases to be an increase in the aggregate claimants’ costs bill.
“This may not present much of a disincentive for any firm making such an application but enhancing the costs revenue of solicitors is not, of itself, a free-standing component of the overriding objective.”
Turner J also found that having a considerable number of eligible claimants “may well give rise to an enhanced claim to the role of lead solicitor but it is a factor which falls far short of amounting to an entitlement. In this regard, each case must be judged on its own merits”.
He said: “The selection of lead solicitors is not an exercise in proportional representation.”
The risk of complicating the litigation with Collins’ involvement was already apparent, said Turner J. “For example, it so happens that Collins have been applying a significantly different and less stringent test of eligibility than IM and HJ in respect of those whom they consider to have sufficient prospects of success to be entered on the register.
“In his witness statement of 12 October 2017, Mr Collins has sought to contend that ‘this and a number of directly related issues should be disposed of at an adjourned hearing before a separate High Court Judge with the defendants being excluded’.
“Furthermore, Collins have instructed two experts to provide reports or commentaries on the expert evidence already collated by the existing lead solicitors the substance of which they claim should be relied upon by the claimants.
“IM and HJ are implacably opposed to the suggestion that the evidence of one of these experts should be deployed and there is thus a serious and ongoing disagreement as to that expert’s future role, if any.”
Further, the judge found, the disagreement between the firms “has already begun to deteriorate from a mere divergence of objective professional opinion to the stage of personal recrimination”.
He stressed that the group litigation order framework required “firm and consistent organisation”.
“Internal clashes between lead solicitors on significant matters of case management and control and flavoured by personal animosity are antipathetic to the orderly progress of the litigation as a whole.
“Judging by the areas of dispute so emphatically ventilated by the existing lead solicitors and Collins before me, the granting of this application would be more likely to produce a long-running forensic Punch and Judy show than a focused and coherent pathway to a just resolution of the claims to be achieved at proportionate cost.”
Turner J also took into account the “long and successful history” of IM and HJ working together efficiently in the very similar British Coal coke oven workers litigation.
He also said “it might be thought brave of Mr Collins” to rely on his firm’s work as lead solicitors in the Corby group litigation, which lasted 12 weeks, given that “the managing judge in that case had ruled that, but for shortcomings in the presentation of the claimants’ case and the organisation of their witnesses, it would have been distinctly shorter”.
Turner J concluded: “I am entirely satisfied that it would be wrong to permit Collins to be appointed as lead solicitors in this GLO.
“The GLO structure, combined with the involvement of the existing lead solicitors, ensures that the parties are on an equal footing. Expense will be increased rather than saved by expanding the number of lead solicitors.
“Matters are likely to proceed with greater expedition without impairing the demands of fairness by maintaining the status quo. An increase in the number of lead solicitors would also be likely to increase the demands on the court’s own resources.
“I am of the view that the concerns raised on behalf of Collins as to the future direction of the litigation can adequately be dealt with on an issue by issue basis by the exercise of the court’s broad case management powers.”
This is the second dispute of its type to be before the courts in recent weeks. We revealed last month  that two law firms were battling it out to be named the lead solicitors in the group action being taken over the Volkswagen emissions scandal.