Thursday, December 12, 2013

Over-representation, voluminous material and costs proportionality: Yara Australia Pty Ltd & Ors v Oswal [2013] VSCA 337

The matter of Yara Australia Pty Ltd & Ors v Oswal [2013] VSCA 337 was a unique step taken by the Court of Appeal, in which the Court of Appeal asked the parties to address the Court on the question of whether an unsuccessful leave to appeal application involved the breach by any party of its overarching obligations under the Civil Procedure Act 2010 (Vic) (the 'Act'). The concern of the Court of Appeal was whether, during a leave to appeal application, there was over-representation of a party by counsel and whether the material produced on the hearing of the application for leave to appeal was unnecessary or excessive.

That is, the Court of Appeal was concerned with whether the overarching obligation in s24 of the Act was breached, which provides as follows:
A person to whom the overarching obligations apply must use reasonable endeavours to ensure that legal costs and other costs incurred in connection with the civil proceeding are reasonable and proportionate to—
(a) the complexity or importance of the issues in dispute; and
(b) the amount in dispute.
The Court sought submissions under s29(2)(b) of the Act, which allows a court to make certain orders on its own motion in the event that it finds a person has contravened the overarching obligations in the Act.

Background and summary of findings

By way of summary, the Court of Appeal noted the following relevant facts:
  • The leave to appeal application was from a decision by Whelan J to set aside orders of Efthim AsJ that the respondents provide security for costs of the applicants in the proceedings. 
  • The amount of security for costs sought for each party was between $20,000 and $80,000.
  • There were five senior counsel, six junior counsel and five firms of solicitors representing the parties. One group of parties had two senior counsel and one junior acting for them; another had two juniors; and another had senior and junior counsel.
  • The Court was provided with six application folders comprising submissions, affidavit material, transcript and authorities running to over 2,700 pages. The affidavits filed by the applicants contained many unnecessary documents, many of which were not referred to in the submissions.
The Court of Appeal considered that because of the complexity and expense of the broader litigation, including the ongoing legal costs for preparing the litigation and a damages claim that could run to hundreds of millions of dollars, it was appropriate that each party be represented by the counsel that were engaged (at [39]). 

However, the Court of Appeal considered that the applicants breached the overarching obligation in s24 because of the filing of voluminous material (at [53]). The Court of Appeal summed up the mischief that the Act is seeking to address, as follows:
52 The Act’s objective is the reform of the culture of unnecessary expenditure on civil litigation. Parliament has intended that this reform can only be achieved by holding parties to account for undesirable civil litigation practices that are unfortunately too common. The court was burdened with excessive material. The applicants and the respondents were burdened with the costs of that material. There has been a breach of the overarching obligation to ensure the costs are reasonable and proportionate by including in the application books voluminous material that was extraneous or repetitious and excessive.
The end result in Yara was that the Court of Appeal took the contravention into account under s29 and made the following orders, on its own motion, amongst others:

  • each applicant was ordered to pay the respondent's costs; 
  • each applicant's solicitor was ordered to indemnify the applicant 50% of the respondent's costs incurred as a consequence of the excessive content of the application books; and 
  • each applicant's solicitor was disallowed recovery from the applicant of 50% of the costs relating to the preparation of the application books and incidental costs.

s24 requirement for costs to be reasonable and proportionate

The discussion about s24 focused on the obligation of legal practitioners to ensure that costs are reasonable and proportionate. The Court of Appeal said that this overrides the legal practitioner's duty to the client such that the client's instructions would not relieve the legal practitioner of this overarching obligation (at [14] to [15]):
14 Each party and their solicitor and counsel have an obligation to comply with the overarching obligation. Whether any of them have breached that overarching obligation is to be determined by an objective evaluation of their conduct having regard to the issues and the amount in dispute in the proceeding. The legal practitioners’ duty is non-delegable. The obligation will override their duty to their client where the discharge of that duty would be inconsistent with the overarching obligation.[19] The legal practitioner will not be relieved of this overarching responsibility because of the instructions of their client.[20] 
15 Legal practitioners, whether solicitor or counsel, involved in the preparation of pleadings, affidavits or other materials that are to be used in the proceeding or who provide advice as to such matters, have individual responsibilities to comply with the overarching obligation. Both solicitor and counsel also have an overarching responsibility with respect to the extent and level of their client’s representation. Each must ensure that, having regard to the issues, the extent and level of representation proposed is reasonable and proportionate. Advice or instructions given or received by legal practitioners, and instructions given by the client may inform but will not be determinative of the question whether, viewed objectively, there has been a breach of the obligation.
That is, if the client insists on senior counsel, or a number of counsel, in circumstances where it might not be reasonable because of the nature, complexity or quantum of the dispute, the legal practitioner is still on the hook despite those instructions.

s29 power to make orders on contravention of overarching obligations

The Court of Appeal also focused on s29, which gives the court power to sanction legal practitioners and parties for contravening their overarching obligations. The Court of Appeal noted that the power is broader and more flexible than that in R62.23 and the inherent jurisdiction of the Court, which are designed to compensate for negligence or incompetence ([18]).

The Court of Appeal said that s29 gives a degree of flexibility in sanctioning parties or legal practitioners because of a breach of the overarching obligations, and the sanctions are not just limited to incompetence or improper conduct, but failure to use reasonable endeavours to comply with the overarching obligations ([20]):
20 The Court’s powers under s 29 of the Act include the power to sanction legal practitioners and parties for a contravention of their obligations as the heading to Part 2.4 indicates.[30] In our view, these powers are intended to make all those involved in the conduct of litigation — parties and practitioners — accountable for the just, efficient, timely and cost effective resolution of disputes. Through them, Parliament has given the courts flexible means of distributing the cost burden upon and across those who fail to comply with their overarching obligations. A sanction which redistributes that burden may have the effect of compensating a party. It may take the form of a costs order against a practitioner, an order that requires the practitioner to share the burden of a costs order made against their client or an order which deprives the practitioner of costs to which they would otherwise be entitled. The Act is clearly designed to influence the culture of litigation through the imposition of sanctions on those who do not observe their obligations. Moreover, the power to sanction is not confined to cases of incompetence or improper conduct by a legal practitioner. Where there is a failure by the practitioner, whether solicitor or counsel, to use reasonable endeavours to comply with the overarching obligations, it will be no answer that the practitioner acted upon the explicit and informed instructions of the client. A sanction may be imposed where, contrary to s 13(3)(b), the legal practitioner acts on the instruction of his or her client in breach of the overarching obligations.
As such, the Court of Appeal regarded ss28 and 29 as giving the Court broad disciplinary powers which may be reflected in the costs orders made ([21]).

The Court of Appeal also noted that s29 has resulted in courts at first instance taking a more pro-active and innovative approach in achieving its objects, particularly because judicial officers must actively hold the parties to account ([24] and [26]):
26 The Act prescribes that parties to a civil proceeding are under a strict, positive duty to ensure that they comply with each of the overarching obligations and the court is obliged to enforce these duties. The statutory sanctions provide a valuable tool for improving case management, reducing waste and delay and enhancing the accessibility and proportionality of civil litigation. Judicial officers must actively hold the parties to account.
The Court of Appeal also noted the under-utilisation of these provisions by the courts on their own motion, and considered whether there was judicial disinclination to do this because of a fear that an inquiry about a potential breach might be time-consuming and require the introduction of additional material. The Court of Appeal noted that such fears cannot relieve judges of their responsibilities, and in any event a judge at first instance would not be expected to undertake a substantial inquiry particularly when most of what would be required is a brief submission on costs ([27]):
27 Yet as we have observed, sanctions imposed for a breach of any overarching provisions have been a rarity at first instance. When no party invites the court to determine whether there has been a breach of the Act, there may be a judicial disinclination to embark upon such an own-motion inquiry for fear that inquiry as to a potential breach may be time consuming and may require the introduction of material that was not before the court as part of the proceeding. Such fears cannot relieve judges of their responsibilities. But we would not wish it to be thought that a judicial officer at first instance must undertake a substantial inquiry when considering whether there has been a contravention of the Act. As the sanction for a breach will usually lie in an appropriate costs order, a judge may at the conclusion of the reasons for judgment immediately invite oral submissions as to why there should not be a finding that the Act was contravened. The judge may in a relatively brief way deal with that issue in providing succinct reasons for a finding that there has been a breach of the Act and how that finding affects the orders for costs that are to be pronounced. 

Yara is an important case because it has considered the core case management provisions in the Act. It has signalled that the purpose of s28 and 29 is both punitive and compensatory, and that parties and practitioners who do not act reasonably and who do not comply with their overarching obligations ought to beware, as a court may be obliged, because of circumstances that arise during a case, to undertake its own inquiry into whether or not there has been a breach of the Act.

Also, the Court of Appeal noted that legal practitioners cannot rely on their client's instructions as an excuse for a breach of their overarching obligations, and must ensure they also comply. This applies to both the seniority of counsel and number of lawyers engaged on the matter, and the volume and relevance of documentation before the Court. The legal practitioners remain on the hook for these matters despite the client's instructions.

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