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Phillips & Co (A Firm) v Bath Housing [2012] EWCA Civ 1591

The appellant client had instructed the respondent solicitors to act on its behalf concerning possession of a flat. Their task was complete by the end of 2003. The solicitors’ fees had not been agreed, so they were entitled to claim a reasonable amount for the work done.

The appellant client had instructed the respondent solicitors to act on its behalf concerning possession of a flat. Their task was complete by the end of 2003. The solicitors’ fees had not been agreed, so they were entitled to claim a reasonable amount for the work done. If it was not paid the solicitors had six years from the end of 2003 in which to bring proceedings to claim payment, but they did not do so. They did however write to their client in September 2004 to detail what amount they claimed was payable by way of their costs. The client replied by a letter dated 20 September 2004, disputing the amount claimed. 

When the solicitors brought proceedings for payment on 10 September 2010 over six years later the client relied on the lapse of time under the Limitation Act 1980 (‘the Act’). The Solicitors’ response was to rely on the client’s letter as an acknowledgment, commencing the six year period again, and bringing their claim within the limitation period. 

Section 29(5) of the Act reads as follows: 

“Where any right of action has accrued to recover 

(a) any debt or other liquidated pecuniary claim… 

and the person liable or accountable for the claim acknowledges the claim or makes any payment in respect of it the right shall be treated as having accrued on and not before the date of the acknowledgment or payment.” 

The client’s appeal gave rise to two questions: (1) Whether a bill of costs falls within the Act and (2) if it so, was the client’s letter an acknowledgment for this purpose? 

Firstly, the CA held that a claim by solicitors for remuneration, whether fixed by assessment or otherwise, is within the phrase “debt or other liquidated pecuniary claim.” That phrase, as interpreted previously by the courts, was not treated as requiring the amount of the liability to have already been ascertained. 

Secondly, although the client’s letter took issue with the amount claimed it did not argue with the principle that something was payable. The Judge below had been correct to find that the claim had been acknowledged, and proceedings were not barred by the lapse of time. The appeal was dismissed, and the solicitors got their costs.

Vaughan Jacob / 1st Jan 2013


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