Judge slashes MGN libel case costs bill by almost half

A law firm which claimed costs of £72,000 for a libel case against Mirror Group Newspapers has had its bill substantially reduced by a Costs Judge.

Judge Peter Haworth slashed the claim by Atkins Thomson from £72,000 to £38,251.98 – a reduction of 46.8 per cent – for its work on a case which resulted in a property developer accepting 30,000 in damages.

The costs hearing last month came after MGN decided to take the bill presented to it as the libel defendant to detailed assessment.

Property developer Ed Buxton, the defendant in the costs case, was then ordered to pay costs of the assessment after Haworth ruled he had been wrong to ignore an earlier offer of £40,000 made by MGN to settle the case.

The row over costs followed a statement in open court at the High Court in December last year, when Buxton accepted £30,000 in damages from MGN over a Sunday Mirror story from the previous July which falsely alleged that he had beaten up model Sophie Anderton.

As part of the settlement, MGN agreed to pay Buxton’s legal costs.

After receiving a schedule for costs totalling £72,000, MGN made an offer of £40,000 for costs in December last year.

The offer was withdrawn a month later after Buxton ignored it. Then in October this year, his lawyers finally made an offer.

The judge said he was not satisfied with the conduct of the receiving party – Buxton – in the detailed assessment proceedings, and was also taking into account what he called the “very, very substantial” reduction in the costs bill.

He would not allow Buxton to receive his costs for the detailed assessment – rather, Buxton would have to pay the “considerable” costs of the assessment proceedings.

The judge said a valid offer of settlement had been made, and remained on the table for a month before being withdrawn.

The reason it was withdrawn, he said, was that the receiving party had simply ignored it and proceeded to detailed assessment.

The paying party – MGN – had taken steps to conclude the matter to reduce its own costs liability, and considerable costs would have been saved if its offer had been accepted.

Mark Thomson, the partner at Atkins Thomson who represented Buxton at the December 2009 hearing in the High Court at which the settlement in the case was announced, refused to comment on the costs issue.

“It was a private hearing. I am not going to comment on it,” he said.

One observer said that it was interesting that MGN had decided to fight on the costs issue, given despite that doing so might well have cost more than the amount of costs in dispute.

There was usually a powerful commercial incentive to settle such claims for costs – and MGN’s experience in this case suggested that many claims for costs were “settled over the odds” because of the cost involved in going into the detailed assessment procedure.

Marcus Partington, head of MGN’s editorial legal department, said: “This certainly isn’t the first time, and it undoubtedly won’t be the last, where excessive costs have been claimed by claimants in a defamation or privacy claim.

“MGN welcomes the fact that, quite rightly, the court in this case took a large scythe, repeatedly, to Atkins Thomson’s costs.

‘We very much hope that this decision indicates a new willingness on the court’s behalf to scrutinise intensely the costs sought by claimants in defamation and privacy cases.”

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