The scam of proportionate legal costs


A version of this piece was published in The Times today:

The Scam of ‘Proportionate’ Legal Costs
28 July 2016

Brian May

There was recently a story in the press about how the costs awarded to me in a court were slashed by a judge called Master Rowley. The story was of course trivialised by silly puns in the headlines, and people might have got the impression that I had been admonished for wasting money and complaining for no good reason. So I’d like to tell the full story, because I believe there is a new rule being applied in British law, which will further erode the ability of any citizen who is abused to get any kind of fair compensation.

It’s likely to make it almost impossible for the man in the street to fight back for justice against the bullies who trample all over him.

Basically the facts of my case are that the owner of one of the houses in our street decided to excavate a basement two stories deep, in what used to be a quiet residential part of London. The works have til now gone on for 3 years, causing all of us immense distress. There has been excruciating piling-rig noise, dust, vibration from heavy excavation equipment, endless traffic in the street, 6 days a week, and still there is no sign of it stopping.

I sued this man, Bizarri, the owner of the property, for the loss of our quality of life – for years now it has been impossible for us to relax in our gardens, and there is no place inside the house, even with triple glazing, to get away from most of the noise this obscene development has generated. It has taken endless hours of researching, documenting, taking acoustic readings, having meetings, employing experts to quantify the disturbance which has been massive, and putting together a case for compensation. It’s all stress and time eaten up, which I didn’t ask for in my life … I’m a musician. At the end of all this, I instructed my lawyer to present the case for compensation for the amount I and my family have suffered. We won the case. We were awarded a fairly paltry sum – 25,000 pounds in damages, but at least the principle was upheld. We then asked for the aggressor to pay the costs of my action – as is normal in such cases. My total bills, for my lawyer, and for the acoustic expert advice, amounted to over 200,000 pounds. The other side objected and we went to a costs court to get satisfaction. At this point Master Rowley decided that the costs I’d detailed were inaccurate, or excessive (based on what evidence I have no idea), so he arbitrarily reduced them; and then he applied this new rule of proportionality, which dictates that if the costs are much higher than the damages, they must be reduced to be ‘in proportion’. So I ended up with about 35,000 pounds instead of the 208,000 I had spent on the action.

The upshot is that by trying to obtain some kind of compensation, I spent 208,000 pounds, received 25,000 in damages, plus a derisory 42,000 in costs, and so I end up being out of pocket on the whole thing by about 141,000 pounds. Where’s the proportionality in that ? Where’s the justice ? This absurd proportionality rule makes it absolutely impossible for any abused party to protect himself.

I notice I am not the only one to suffer this treatment. In another case, a primary school teacher recently sued a newspaper that had somehow got access to information on her mobile phone, and wanted to use it to splash details about her private life all over the press. She had to hire solicitors and two barristers to do so. The newspaper first tried to put up a defence but then settled the claim by paying her 20,000 pounds and promising not to use the confidential information. The lawyers’ bill was nearly 242,000 pounds.

The costs judge, Master Gordon-Saker, decided that only 167,000 pounds of this was reasonable and necessary. He then went on to find that only half of this figure was proportionate. So, as in my case, the £20,000 compensation for the newspaper’s outrageous behaviour was dwarfed by the £158,000 of legal fees that they did not have to pay, and the teacher was never to reclaim. For most people finding this kind of money would be impossible.

In my case, Master Rowley is quoted as saying:


There is no logic to any of this. Who would benefit from such a ‘driver’ effect ? Certainly not the abused citizen who is looking for redress. Does this piece of information actually cause his lawyer to reduce his fees ? Or is the implication that the citizen should find a cheaper advocate ? As for ‘alternative dispute resolution mechanisms’ – I’d like to hear Rowley’s suggestions for what they might be. Once one has spent 3 years trying to reason with an aggressor, I can assure him there is no other ‘mechanism’ for looking for justice, other than going round and punching the selfish bullies in the face. Is that what he’s advocating ? This proportionality rule is a nonsense, and makes a mockery of justice; it is yet another way of ensuring that the super-rich can do anything they like to increase their wealth, including destroying the quality of life of those around them. What was in the mind of the people who introduced this ridiculous rule of proportionality?

I can hardly believe that after spending all this time and money and suffering stress to the point of exhaustion in my own house, that I am now fighting not only greedy property developers hiding behind off-shore companies, and local officials cosying up to them, but now also the legal profession itself in this country, which is beginning to look like it’s just another part of the whole cosy Establishment structure protecting the super-rich bullies. It drives you to despair.

Because I have spoken out, I am now constantly hearing of sad cases of innocent residents of London feeling abused, being trampled over by selfish basement-building bastards for years on end, and having no way of protecting themselves. The Law ought to be springing to their defence, curbing these activities which are solely directed towards generating unearned income. Instead, Britain is becoming a brutal, unfair, place – unworthy to be called a civilised society.