Baby P Sun libel case: social worker could recover legal costs

Judges overturn ruling which disallowed an overrun in costs racked up in defamation action

A social worker involved in the Baby P scandal who was facing a £300,000 shortfall in her legal bill following a successful libel action against the Sun has been told she now has a chance of recovering her costs following a landmark court of appeal judgment.

Three appeal court judges overturned a lower court’s ruling which disallowed an overrun in the costs racked up in the defamation action.

Taylor Hampton solicitors, which acted for social worker Sylvia Henry, said it was “delighted with this verdict”. The law firm added that legal costs had rocketed following “the ultimately futile” and “fraught attempt” by the Sun to retrospectively justify its “vitriolic campaign” to force Henry out of her job by seeking fresh disclosures and amending its defence.

The costs budget agreed in court for the libel hearing was set at just more than £539,000 back in September 2010, but this excluded success fees for the lawyers who were working on a no-win no-fee basis.

By the time the case ended last May, costs including the success fees and insurance taken out against a defeat had tripled to almost £1.6m.

The court of appeal unanimously found that the senior costs judge who had concluded there was “no good reason” to depart from the originally agreed costs budget for the case had taken “too narrow a view of what might amount to good reason”.

Lord Justice Moore-Bick, Lord Justice Aikens and Lady Justice Black said the judge had “found himself in a difficult position” as he found that Henry had “a strong argument” that the costs were “both reasonable and proportionate”, but had made a ruling based on the failure of the social worker’s solicitors to tell News International’s solicitors that they were exceeding their budget.

Henry’s approved budget, excluding trial costs, was £381,305. This was broken down into nine categories. In four of the categories the budget was exceeded by “relatively modest amounts”, while three others were under budget, largely because the expected 10-day trial did not happen.

However, in the remaining two categories, there was a significant overrun in the budget. In relation to disclosure, Henry was seeking £87,556, nearly eight times the approved figure of £11,250, and in relation to witness statements it was £228,891 against a budget of £12,487.The Sun’s publisher, News International, declined to comment.