For far too long, the law was unclear about whether costs agreements which said ‘We’ll only charge you if you win and only for work in respect of which we get a costs order’ actually worked. The problem was that losing parties invoked the indemnity principle in the law of costs, arguing that what was recoverable under a costs order was nil. The indemnity principle says that party-party costs awards are in no way punitive; they are wholly compensatory. Party-party costs orders are awarded as a partial indemnity to the winning party’s liability for their lawyers’ fees and other expenses of the litigation. If the winning party has no such liability at the time of the costs order, there is nothing for the losing party to be ordered partially to indemnify. Where the winner’s liability to pay their lawyer was conditional on a party-party costs order, there was, at the moment of making the costs order, nothing to indemnify. Wentworth v Rogers  NSWCA 145 was the leading case for many years. Justice Santow’s dictum was favourable to pro bono solicitors while Justice Basten’s was unfavourable. The third judge did not weigh in on this question.
What the judges in that case said, however, was obiter dicta. Now there is a unanimous decision of the Victorian Court of Appeal which actually decides that this kind of costs agreement works; the winning party may obtain from the losing party a party-party costs order by way of a partial indemnity against the liability to pay their lawyers. The case is Mainieri v Cirillo  VSCA 227 and Nettle, Hansen and Santamaria JJA expressly preferred Justice Santow’s reasoning in Wentworth. It may be expected that state courts, including Courts of Appeal, elsewhere in Australia will follow the Victorian Court’s decision: Farah Constructions Pty Ltd v Say-Dee Pty Ltd  HCA 22 at  and .
That is the good news though. The bad news is that an unfortunate level of confusion still prevails in relation to costs agreements which are even closer to pure pro bono in that they say ‘We won’t charge you anything unless you get a costs order, and then we will only charge you so much as you are actually able to recover from the person ordered to pay costs under the costs order’. A costs agreement which was, as a matter of substance, to that effect was found not to present a problem in LM Investment Management Limited v The Members of the LM Managed Performance Fund  QSC 54. Then in Mainieri, the Court of Appeal left open in obiter dicta the possibility that a costs agreement in which the winning party’s liability to pay their solicitors was conditional on recovery of costs from the losing party might not work. Subsequently, in Mourik v Von Marburg  VSC 601 the Costs Judge in Victoria decided that such an agreement in fact does not work, but the correctness of that decision has subsequently been doubted in dicta of a Victorian Federal Court judge sitting in Sydney. What a mess. But I am not convinced that the pro bono sector should give up on obtaining judicial recognition of a costs agreement which, as a matter of substance, predicates recovery of costs on the actual recovery of costs from the other side. Continue reading “The latest on pro bono costs agreements which preserve the possibility of a costs order against the other side”