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Recoverability of Inquest Costs in Civil Proceedings and the Impact of Admissions of Liability

16 October 2020
In the recent case of Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service v Susan Ann Veevers [2020] EWHC 2550 (Comm), the Court examined the recoverability of Inquest costs in civil proceedings when the Defendant had indicated that they would be willing to compensate the estate and dependants, but had not made a formal admission of liability. 

Section 51(1) Supreme Court Act 1981

A Coroner has no power to award costs during or following an Inquest. However, where an interested party commences subsequent civil proceedings, the costs of attending and being represented at an Inquest are recoverable if they can be said to be "of and incidental" to those proceedings within the meaning of Section 51(1) of the Supreme Court Act 1981.

Bowbelle

An issue which often falls to be determined in considering whether Inquest costs can be said to be of and incidental to the civil proceedings is whether an admission of liability has been made and, specifically, whether liability is no longer in issue between the parties before or during the course of an Inquest. Such an issue was considered in Ross v The Owners of the Ship ‘Bowbelle’ [1997] 1 WLR 1159. 

In Bowbelle, Mr Justice Clarke examined the various correspondence which passed between the Claimants and the Defendants prior to the commencement of the Inquest. That correspondence included an admission by the Defendants that they were prepared to "deal with the Claimants without requiring them to prove negligence". In light of that admission, it was held that the full costs of attending the Inquest could not fairly be regarded as costs of or incidental to the contemplated proceedings against the Defendants. The Claimants no longer had a need to incur the costs of attending the Inquest for the purposes of preparing for subsequent civil proceedings when they could have simply relied upon the Defendants' admission. 

The decision in Bowbelle has since been endorsed in Roach v Home Office [2009] EWHC 312 (QB).

Veevers 

Veevers concerned an appeal of DDJ Harris' decision that the Claimant / Respondent, a Mrs Veevers, was entitled to recover her costs of attending an Inquest. The Inquest commenced following an incident on 13 July 2013 in which a Stephen Hunt, a firefighter for GMFRS, was tragically killed during the course of his employment. At first instance, DDJ Harris held that the Inquest costs were "in principle recoverable, subject to the detailed assessment of those costs".

GMFRS appealed the decision on the grounds that the correspondence which passed between GMFRS and Mrs Veevers prior to the commencement of the Inquest included letters which were tantamount to an admission of liability. Those letters included confirmation that GMFRS were "willing to compensate the estate and dependents of Stephen Hunt…for any loss which they may prove to be attributable to the incident on 13 July 2013 together with payment of their reasonable costs" and that it was not their "intention to allege contributory negligence or to seek any reduction of damages".

GMFRS sought to draw parallels between that correspondence and the correspondence passing between the parties in Bowbelle contending that GMFRS had also made early and open concessions but without making a specific admission as to liability. An issue which fell to be determined in Veevers therefore was whether Inquest costs could still be recoverable where a prospective Defendant indicates a willingness to settle a claim but does not in fact admit liability.

Judge Pearce rejected GMFRS' submissions and drew distinction between the facts in Bowbelle and Veevers. The first being that the judgment of Mr Justice Clarke in Bowbelle clearly identified the communications between the parties as amounting to an admission "at the very least of breach of duty if not of liability". The second being that, in Veevers, the correspondence from GMFRS could not be said to be a concession as to negligence or liability and, when GMFRS was invited to provide an admission of liability, it in fact declined to do so. Accordingly, GMFRS' concessions did not equate to an admission which could be relied upon by the Claimant in civil proceedings for the purposes of CPR 14.1A.  

Comments 

The decision in Veevers goes some way in reinforcing the value of early and clear admissions of liability for prospective Defendants prior to the commencement or conclusion of an Inquest where liability is not likely to be in issue in subsequent civil proceedings. However, the usual requirements of proportionality and reasonableness will still apply.

Author: Alex Eaton.

Further Reading

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