Ainsworth v Stewarts Law LLP [2020] EWCA Civ 178

There has been an important Court of Appeal decision this week in relation to Points of Dispute. The case itself involved a dispute between a Solicitors’ firm and a former client but the decision itself is likely to affect most cases where Points of Dispute are served.

Mr Ainsworth instructed Stewarts on a private client basis in connection with a financial dispute until terminating their retainer on 23rd November 2017. The solicitors had delivered three invoices in November 2017. Mr Ainsworth disputed all of them and applied to the court for detailed assessment. Following a Directions Order the solicitors served a breakdown of the costs. Mr Ainsworth’s representative filed Points of Dispute (PODs) in very general terms. The document noted – “the Claimant is mindful of the requirements of the Civil Procedure Rules as to the need to keep Points of Dispute brief and succinct.” He advised that all of the solicitors’ entries were disputed, and then carried on –

“Significant duplication between fee earners,

Wholly excessive time expended by fee earners reviewing documentation provided by the Claimant

1. Too much time claimed generally in relation to preparation
2. An excessive level of time claimed in relation to drafting of communications
3. Unnecessary inter-fee earner discussions arising due to the duplication
4. Excessive time spent collating documentation
5. Significant preparation time claimed in relation to meetings with the Claimant.

It can be confirmed that the above stated list is not exhaustive of the issues but provide a general overview as to the reason why the time claimed is unusual in nature and/or amount. The Claimant reserved their position generally.”

Stewarts responded –

“The defendant cannot provide any meaningful reply to this general point. In the absence of itemised points of dispute being served (permission to rely on the same being a matter for the court and the Defendant’s position will be reserved), the Court will be asked to dismiss this point”

The battleground concerned the level of detail required in points of dispute. Although it was a solicitor/client bill, the decision is of concern to anyone drafting PODs. The matter came before Master Gordon-Saker who struck out the PODs in relation to documents. This decision was upheld by the circuit judge and by the Court of Appeal on 19th February 2020. Points of Dispute needed to set out exactly what was in dispute and why. Asplin LJ explained –

“Common sense dictates that the points of dispute must be drafted in a way which enables the parties and the court to determine precisely what is in dispute and why. That is the very purposes of such a document. It is necessary in order to enable the receiving party, the solicitor in this case, to be able to reply to the complaints. It is also necessary in order to enable the court to deal with the issues raised in a manner which is fair, just and proportionate.”

Whilst the document should be short and to the point, it should identify ‘specific points’ and “specify the specific items in the bill to which they relate and to make clear in each case why the item is disputed.”

The guidance is clear. Any PODs must be clear on focussed. They must set out each issue where there is a dispute and clearly explain why it is contested. At Cook Legal, we understand the importance of both PODS and Replies and how crucial they are. When we draft these, they are always robust and case sensitive which set out the strengths of the case that opponents take notice. You can’t do this effectively if they are template-driven