An architect is to be paid at least £400,000 in legal costs after being unsuccessfully sued by her former neighbours for providing free advice on a garden project
Basia Lejonvarn was awarded the initial six-figure sum in costs after a long-standing legal battle with her former neighbours in Highgate, north London. The total costs have now been set at the punitive, indemnity rate and are expected to be worked out by the end of the year, meaning the figure will rise further.
The American-qualified architect was sued by her neighbours Peter and Lynn Burgess after providing free assistance in 2013 in a ‘non-commercial, informal and social context’ for a major landscaping project at their home.
Lejonvarn, who had lived next to the couple’s previous address in Highgate, initially became involved in the project after the couple had sought quotes from landscaping experts which valued the project at £175,000 (excluding VAT). They believed the price was too high.
The architect agreed and offered to help her friends on a casual basis finding other contractors who could deliver the scheme at a lower budget of £130,000.
But, according to the judgement papers, after piling and earthworks were carried out at the site the Burgess’s became concerned about the budget.
At a meeting in July, Peter Burgess said he had understood the budget to be £78,000 and denied that he had ever agreed the £130,000 figure.
As a result, the architect terminated her relationship with the respondents. At no stage did she make any claim for fees in connection with the garden project which subsequently ran over budget, was blighted by problems and eventually had to be completed by the original landscape contractor.
Following the disagreement in 2015, the couple began High Court proceedings for breach of contract and negligence, claiming up to £300,000 in damages.
Three weeks after the start of legal proceedings, Lejonvarn made an early offer of £25,000 to settle out of court, known as a Part 36 offer. However that settlement offer was rejected with the couple offering a counter-offer of £220,000 in damages.
At a preliminary High Court trial, Lejonvarn had been found to owe the couple a duty of care – a duty that was also held to exist when Lejonvarn appealed.
However when the specific issues of the case were then reheard at High Court, the judge concluded that the duty of care was limited only to the services which the architect provided and that on the substantive issues the claimants had failed.
The judge found that the couple’s ‘claim for negligent design and project management [lacked] credibility and conviction [and], in any event, the claimants [were] unable to identify any drawings produced by the defendant which caused any defective construction or any advice which was given negligently’.
The couple therefore recovered no damages.
Over the course of the lengthy legal action, lawyers acting on behalf of Lejonvarn stated the full indemnity costs at an ‘eye-watering’ £724,265.
In his conclusion on the issue of whether Lejonvarn was entitled to standard or indemnity costs, Court of Appeal, judge Justice Coulson stated last week that the legal action bought by the Burgesses was linked to ‘an irrational desire for punishment unlinked to the merits of the claims themselves’ and was considered conduct that was ‘out of the norm’.
Coulson stated: ‘In my view, the central element of this debate is whether or not, prior to trial, the respondents (or their advisers) should have realised that these were speculative/weak claims which were most unlikely to succeed and that, in pursuing them to trial, their conduct was out of the norm and should have been recognised by an award of indemnity costs in favour of the appellant.
’I would order indemnity costs in favour of the appellant from 7 May 2017, being one month after the Court of Appeal judgment. The appellant’s costs prior to that date will be assessed on the standard basis.’