Lawyers denied CFA fees after failing to act in client’s best interests

A solicitors firm was not entitled to fees for an aborted case where a conditional fee agreement had been agreed, the High Court has ruled.

In Toms (t/a Goldbergs Solicitors) v Brannan Mr Justice Griffiths concluded that the county court had been right to dismiss the Plymouth firm’s claim for £12,600 fees under the CFA. The judge ruled that the original finding was not that the CFA in question was not binding, but rather that the professional fees claimed were not recoverable under its terms.

The firm had entered the agreement in 2015 to represent John Brannan in litigation. The court heard the limitation period expired in July 2017 without Brannan authorising the issue of any proceedings, so the underlying litigation therefore died.

The firm terminated the CFA around a week later for ‘failing to give instructions to issue the claim’. There was no suggestion that the CFA was unusual or inappropriate in any way, nor that anything was misrepresented to Brennan before it was signed.

The court heard that, when liability was denied in the underlying litigation, the firm wrote to its client promising further advice. That did not happen, and in the county court His Honour Judge Mitchell found that at this time the case ‘cried out’ for a proper reassessment.

The judge went on to state that Brannan was in an ‘invidious position’ at the end of the limitation period, with no proper analysis of the claim for him to take an informed position.

The judge had added: ‘It is my view that [Brannan] was not in breach of the agreement given the circumstances.

‘The [firm] failed to act in [Brannan’s] best interests, or to explain properly and in a timely fashion and that is why matters got to that stage at limitation.’

Griffiths J agreed that the firm would be entitled to payment of basic charges if its client had failed to keep his responsibilities under the agreement.

But he found the county court judge was entitled to find Brannan was not in breach of the CFA, so the firm was entitled to payment of expenses and disbursement, but not charges.

The firm must pay the £5,000 costs of the appeal, as well as 90% of the costs of the action previously assessed at £6,065.

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