Inquest Costs | When Is An ‘Admission’ Not An Admission?

Admission Chalkboard

This was an appeal against a decision of Deputy District Judge Harris (sitting as a regional costs judge) that the costs of preparing for and attending an inquest into the death of the Claimant’s son were recoverable as costs of the civil claim.

Prior to the inquest the Defendant had written to the Claimant’s solicitors as follows, on 4/2/16:

“Our clients have made no assessment of the potential for liability to the estate and dependants of Stephen Hunt but they have instructed us to set out their position in relation to any potential claim which may be brought for the family of the deceased.

Our clients are not in a position to consider an admission of liability and we have not undertaken a detailed forensic analysis of the potential for liability in any civil claim on their behalf.

The purpose and objective in making the comments which we make directly below is to attempt to remove any additional stress from the family during and immediately after the inquest.

We write in open correspondence in order to advise that our clients are willing to compensate the estate and dependents of Stephen Hunt pursuant to the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 and Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1934, for any loss which they may prove to be attributable to the incident on 13 July 2013 together with payment of their reasonable costs.

It is not our client’s intention to allege contributory negligence or to seek any reduction of damages in this regard. We confirm that our clients will deal with the claims on a full basis.”

The Claimant’s solicitors responded, on 16/2/16, as follows:

“Thank you for your letter of 4 February 2016.

In light of your letter I will take instructions from my clients with a view to making a claim within 28 days, based upon the current evidence that has been provided as part of the coroner’s disclosure, and subject to any evidence that may come out at the inquest. A schedule of loss will be provided… I will be inviting the Defendant to admit liability upon receipt of the letter of claim because as you are aware the intention to pay compensation to the estate and dependents could be withdrawn at any time. We confirm that we will continue to prepare for the inquest as part of our liability investigations until such time as liability is admitted or my clients’ claims are settled….”

The Defendant’s solicitors responded by email, on 4/3/16:

“In terms of your letter there is no need to prepare a letter of claim on behalf of the estate or dependents. If there are any other claimants however then please let me know and I will consider the position. Obviously our earlier correspondence makes it plain that the claims by the dependents and estate will be met without reduction. I also confirm I am increasing the focus of my enquiries in respect of Paul’s Hair World and that they will be pursued separately by GMFRS.”

Both parties were represented at the inquest and the civil claim settled thereafter for the sum of £80,000. In the course of the subsequent assessment proceedings, the Defendant argued that the Claimant should not be entitled to recover the costs of preparing for and attending the inquest beyond the date of the above pre inquest communications.

It was the Defendant’s position that:

“…read properly, [its] clear and unequivocal position before the inquest … was that, whatever any investigations might throw up, the Appellant would fully meet the claim without raising any issue of contributory negligence or any argument that the Respondent should not recover in full because of the involvement of a third party. This avoided the need for her to incur costs, for example by instructing lawyers to attend an inquest for the purpose of investigating liability for the civil claim. In such circumstances, the inquest costs could not be said to be “of and incidental to” the later civil claim.”

The Claimant’s position was that:

(a) The letter of 4th February 2016 could not be properly described as having admitted liability. This was clear from its fifth paragraph which expressly states that the Appellant is “not in a position to consider an admission of liability.” 

(b) An open offer to compensate the estate for “any loss which they may prove to be attributable to the incident” raises but leaves open the issue as to whether the Appellant was in fact liable for any loss caused in the incident.

(c) The Letters did not deal with questions of causation and/or contribution to the losses.

(d) When the Respondent replied that she would continue to prepare for the inquest until an admission was received, it was open to the Appellant to confirm that liability was admitted yet it declined to do so.

(e) The later letter of 4 March 2016 was no more an admission of liability than was the letter of 4 February 2016. Having been invited to make an admission of liability, the Appellant responded in terms that were not an admission of liability.

HHJ Pearce found that the letter of 4 February 2016 did not amount to an admission of liability:

“…whatever the position was on the facts of The Bowbelle, the position here is somewhat different. The Respondent declined to make an admission in circumstances where, had one been made, it would have been binding, subject to the provisions of CPR 14.1A.”

“…the argument that in some way a statement [of intent to pay compensation] that is not in form an admission should have the same weight as an admission is in my view not sustainable:

(a) If the public body is ultimately going to admit liability in the litigation or at least consent to judgment being entered against it, there is no reason not to make such an admission at early stage. An appropriately worded admission would put the Appellant in no different position to that which it is when judgment is entered against it (whether on admission or otherwise). The benefit to the Appellant in not admitting liability in general terms at an early stage is that it can subsequently resile from its position without having to apply under CPR 14.1A;

(b) CPR 14.1A sets out a clear procedure for making a formal admission. It would be undesirable if uncertainty were created by giving equal effect to other communications that do not satisfy that description. If the defendant chooses to make a communication which is not a admission within the meaning of the CPR, that document will be one factor in the case, but the availability of a route to making a formal admission that puts liability beyond argument will mean that the court is entitled to place less weight on it in the overall conclusion.”

Accordingly, he concluded that, subject to the usual tests of reasonableness and proportionality, the costs of preparing for and attending the inquest were recoverable as costs in the civil claim.

TMC have extensive experience in the recovery of inquest costs in civil claims. We acted for the Claimant in Roach v The Home Office and are regularly instructed in this highly contentious field. Contact us for more information.