High Court refuses capped cost order for English corporate defendant in Malawi sexual exploitation case, emphasising access to justice. Noli sequitur forum non arguments dress up as cost application.

Cavanagh J (unusually assisted by Brown J, who has extensive experience in cost orders) last week in Thomas & Ors v PGI Group Ltd [2021] EWHC 2776 (QB) refused to grant a ‘Capped Cost Order’ or CCO (these also exist for judicial review proceedings and in arbitration). This application for a CCO was reportedly the first made under CPR 3.19.

In the case, brought before Brexit date under Article 4 Brussels Ia, a group of Malawi claimants are suing tea company Lujeri’s English parent company PGI alleging complicity in exploitation and abuse, including sexual abuse.  Claimants allege the Defendant owed a duty of care to them on the basis that it promulgated relevant policies, standards and guidelines, that it exercised supervision and control over Lujeri, and/or that it held itself out as exercising such supervision and control. The Claimants further allege that the Defendant breached that duty of care and that they suffered loss and damage as a result.

English proceedings against Lujeri were dropped following claimants’ admission that they were unlikely to meet a jurisdiction challenge against same on the basis of Malawi being the natural forum for that claim [14]. The defendant does not resist A4 jurisdiction, acknowledges the UK is the natural forum for the claims against it, that there is no abuse of process (neither in my view have any place in A4 jurisdiction) and that the case is at least arguable.

Had the CCO been granted, it would have the effect of limiting the future costs recoverable by the Claimants, should they ultimately be successful, to £150,000 (or thereabouts). It would not impact the recoverable costs of the defendants if they are successful, although [25] they are unlikely to be able to recover any. As the judge notes [13] even if the core claim is successful, compensation will be far below parties’ legal costs in the case. The non-financial, ‘vindication’ [13] objectives are more important.

Despite defendants’ acknowledgment that a jurisdiction challenge is effectively impossible under A4 (A33-34 do not seem engaged), their arguments for a CCO [28 ff] are forum non via the backdoor:

Whilst not disputing that the Claimants are entitled to bring these proceedings against the Defendant in England, the Defendant submits that it is still open to the Claimants to bring proceedings in Malawi against Lujeri, their former, or, in some cases, their current, employer, and, indeed, against the Defendant. The Defendant submits that it would be more appropriate for the Claimants to bring their claims against Lujeri, in Malawi, especially as such claims would be advanced on the simple and straightforward basis of vicarious liability, rather than on the basis of a more complicated claim against the UK-domiciled parent company.

At 43 claimants make the obvious point that this is a ‘(lightly) disguised attempt to strike out these proceedings on the basis that they are an abuse of process, or that England is a forum non conveniens’.

At 72 the judge holds that claimants are right that it would not be appropriate, having regard to the CPR required principle of proportionality [‘the overriding objective [of the CCO, GAVC] of enabling the court to deal with cases justly and at proportionate cost’] to cap the costs at a figure that is less than the minimum costs that are required for them to litigate their claims effectively in the High Court. Costs in other words cannot be disproportionately incurred if they are below the amount that is required by the party to litigate its claims effectively, unless [74] parties’ costs are out of proportion to the potential benefits to the Claimant of the litigation’ – quod non in casu: [79]: ‘The sums that are likely to be recoverable, though small by English standards, are very significant for poor Malawian plantation workers, and they may indeed be life-changing. I accept the Claimants’ submission that in any event, the Claimants’ objectives in bringing these proceedings are not entirely, or even principally, about money.’

At 82-83 the resurrected forum non arguments feature again,  with the judge holding

In any event, in the present case, one of the parties, the Defendant, is domiciled in England. It is a matter of public importance in this country whether a company that is domiciled here is in breach of a duty of care to workers on plantations in Malawi, owned by a subsidiary company. CPR 44.3(5)(e) states that the extent to which a claim is in the public interest is a matter to be taken into account when considering proportionality.

That is an important consideration for future CCOs, outside the Brussels Ia context and indeed an argument that would feed into an A33-34 analysis, too.

At 91 ff the judge reinforces his findings on the basis of access to justice:

‘I think that it is highly significant, in this regard, that the imposition of a CCO would almost certainly have the effect of forcing the Claimants to abandon their claims…

this is not a case in which a wealthy Claimant is deliberately pursuing a low-value claim, at great expense, in order to harass the Defendant, or to cause as much unnecessary cost to the Defendant as possible. Rather, this is a case in which extremely poor Claimants are pursuing a relatively low-value claim for a number of legitimate reasons, only one of which is the prospect of damages.

This is an important finding, both under A4 Brussels Ia and beyond it, under residual English conflicts rules.

Geert.

European Private International Law, 3rd ed. 2021, Chapter 7.

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