Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service v Veevers  EWHC 2550 (Comm)
An admission of liability before an inquest can have a substantial effect on the recoverability of the family’s inquest costs. An early and full admission may extinguish them entirely.
But in the cautionary case of Veevers, the High Court held that the costs of an inquest were in principle recoverable. That was so notwithstanding that Greater Manchester FRS had stated, in pre-inquest correspondence, that the estate would be compensated for any losses arising from the death of the Deceased.
Stephen Hunt was a firefighter, employed by the Appellant and who tragically died in the course of his employment. The family of Mr Hunt pursued a civil claim. In doing so, the family’s solicitors incurred substantial costs in investigating the facts of the claim, and the family were represented at the well-publicised inquest.
In pre-action correspondence and prior to the inquest, the Claimant’s solicitors invited Greater Manchester FRS to admit liability. The response was in terms that, while they were “not in a position to consider an admission of liability”, they were willing to “compensate the estate and dependents of Stephen Hunt…for any loss which they may prove to be attributable to the incident.”
Upholding the decision of the Deputy District Judge, HHJ Pearce set out the classic inquest costs cases of Ross v The Owners of the Ship ‘Bowbelle’  2 Lloyd’s Rep 196, and Roach v Home Office  QB 256.
He set out the following summary of the principles to be applied, at :
- Inquest costs may be recoverable in so far as reasonable and proportionate, so long as they can properly be said to be incidental to the civil claim;
- Such costs will not be recoverable if liability is no longer in issue between the parties, since the costs are simply not incidental to something in issue in the civil claim;
- In determining whether liability is in issue, the court must look at all the circumstances of the case, but the central issue is likely to be whether the prospective defendant has admitted liability or otherwise indicated a willingness to satisfy the claim;
- Liability will not be in issue if it has been admitted since such an admission is binding unless the court subsequently permits it to be withdrawn pursuant to CPR 14.1A.
- However, the Costs Judge is entitled to look with care at anything less than an unqualified admission to see whether the prospective defendant’s position is one from which it may resile or which leaves matter in issue between the parties.
- In particular, if the defendant’s position is not one of unqualified admission in circumstances where such an admission could have been made, the Costs Judge may be entitled to find that the failure to make an unqualified admission justified the conclusion that the defendant might exercise its right to resile from the admission and that therefore the costs of the inquest could properly be said to be incidental to the civil claim.
- If the costs can be justified upon these principles, the mere fact that there are other reasons why the family of the deceased should wish to be represented at an inquest, most obviously to avoid the inequality of arms between unrepresented family members and a represented public body does not mean that the costs are not recoverable. It is enough that the attendance to secure relevant evidence in relation to matters in issues was a material purpose for the attendance.
Applying those principles, the judge considered that that the inquest costs were recoverable in principle. In particular, there had been no unqualified admission. Accordingly, the Claimant solicitors had been entitled to treat the statement as capable of withdrawal.
For those representing the family, the threat of a substantial inquest costs bill is a powerful tool in encouraging early settlement, particularly where those costs may be comparable to the eventual damages claim. For those on behalf of an institutional Interested Person, is a delicate balance, and is difficult to strike in circumstances where the factual and expert evidence will not yet have been fully explored.
When considering the terms, though, of an admission received or to be made, a two-stage test is suggested as a practical approach.
First, compare the wording of the admission to the procedural rules. Does it satisfy the clear procedure set out in CPR 14?
The second is to consider the scope of the admission in the circumstances of the case. Are there potential aspects of a claim on which the admission is silent, or ambiguous? Consider an admission of liability “for the death of” the Deceased. In that case, the extent of liability for pain, suffering, and loss of amenity on the part of the Deceased, or in particular its duration, may remain a matter of dispute and therefore incidental to the claim. Costs expended in exploring that issue may remain recoverable.
Overall, once the decision to satisfy a claim is made, it is clear from Veevers that to do so by equivocal admission runs a risk of negating a significant benefit of that approach.