Litigation Funding Agreements (Enforceability) Bill [HL] Debate

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Department: Scotland Office
Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, who made his points in his usual succinct style—notwithstanding that the usual channels, in what must be the paradigm case of the triumph of hope over experience, have allowed this debate between lawyers to proceed with no time limit whatever on speeches.

I begin by declaring my interest. I am a practising barrister in commercial and competition cases, which include cases where one party is supported by litigation funders; sometimes that is my client, and sometimes it is the other side.

As the House has heard, there is no doubt that third-party litigation funding is now and will remain part of our legal landscape. While this is not a debate about the merits of legal aid, there is no doubt that, in the real world, there is little prospect of a Government of any colour massively increasing the scope of civil legal aid. We must therefore be realistic about what will be in its place. Third-party litigation funding provides an important means to enable people to access justice, which is a fundamental part of the rule of law, and so to vindicate their legal right. That is the reality in the United Kingdom in 2024.

I remember doing cases where one party or the other—sometimes both—had to take out large loans or remortgage their home to fund legal costs, including the risk that they would lose and have to pay the legal costs of not only their side but the other side as well. This country usually has the “loser pays” system, which means that, if they lost, they could face financial ruin.

I therefore suggest that third-party litigation funding, together with the appropriate insurances that can be obtained, is a more attractive proposition for most litigants than taking out large loans, and therefore ought to be a more attractive proposition for society as well. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, explained, this is a worldwide market and an important one for the United Kingdom to remain a leader in. I suggest the real question is how we arrange our law to deal with the reality of such funding. That means we have to strike a balance: on the one hand, we want to provide access to justice, which is, as I say, an essential element of the rule of law; on the other, we do not want to see litigants given a raw deal by one-sided funding agreements, which mean that when they win, they can be left with very little.

However, it is perfectly right, as the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, pointed out, to recognise that in many of these cases, the litigation funder is taking a very real risk. It is very easy after the event to say, “Oh, well that case was bound to win”. There is no such thing—I keep telling my clients this—as a case that is bound to win. Sometimes there are cases that are bound to lose, but that is a different matter. Therefore, we have to try to find a balance in this area. I very much welcome the review that the Lord Chancellor is setting up; I pay tribute to him for doing so. I hope and expect that this will be a cross-party endeavour.

PACCAR had the effect of treating many litigation funding arrangements as damages-based agreements—DBAs, as they are called in the vernacular—with the result that, unless they met the requirements of the DBA Regulations, they were unenforceable. I will not get into whether or not PACCAR was a surprising decision—I am reminded of one of AP Herbert’s “Misleading Cases”, in which losing counsel in the House of Lords seeks to avoid an order for costs on the basis that a decision of the House of Lords was an act of God, being something that no reasonable man could have predicted—but the fact is that PACCAR caused a real degree of consternation among litigation funders. It has also led to a huge amount of satellite litigation about funding agreements themselves, rather than the cases the funding agreements are there to support.

True it is that some funding agreements were renegotiated post PACCAR, so that instead of receiving a share of the damages—which is what caused the problem in PACCAR—the funder is instead paid an agreed multiple of its investment. There are, I understand, three cases of that type currently proceeding in the CAT—the Competition Appeal Tribunal. I think there are three; I am briefed in two, in one for the funded claimant and in the other for the defendant facing a funded claimant.

The fundamental point at issue is whether the decision in PACCAR should stand. The Government have concluded that it should not, and I broadly agree. I therefore support the Bill, which reverses the decision of the Supreme Court in PACCAR. As I say, that decision has been widely criticised.

I will make two other points. First, like the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, I have my mind on other things happening this week. I gently note that this is a good example of the fact that Parliament is sovereign. There is nothing wrong with Parliament reversing a decision of the Supreme Court; ultimately it is for Parliament and not the courts to make the law in this or in any other area. The Bill is therefore perfectly constitutionally proper.

The second, and perhaps more substantive, point is this. I said that I broadly support the Bill, and I do. The reason for that slight note of caution—and it is a slight note—is that there is one issue I want to highlight. It is an issue which has been explained to me by people working in the area; it is not a matter relevant for any client for which I am acting.

The Bill as drafted restores the position ex ante—see Clause 1(4); it is retrospective in that regard. The phrase “retrospective legislation” is sometimes used to imply that the legislation is therefore, and necessarily, bad. That is not the case. The problem with retrospective legislation is not that it is bad in itself. It is that retrospective legislation should not, or at least should not without very good reason, disturb existing legal rights entered into on the faith of the law as it was.

I am concerned about the following sort of situation. Let us assume that someone had a funding agreement with funder A, which is then deemed to be unenforceable by PACCAR, so the litigant goes off and enters into a new funding agreement with funder B, which is PACCAR-compliant. The Bill, as I understand it, would revive the funding agreement with funder A and so leave the litigant with two funding agreements with two different funders on two different sets of terms. That is because the Bill operates retrospectively and does not cater for the fact that some litigants may have done all you could reasonably expect of them at the time; that is, going out to replace the unenforceable funding agreement with an enforceable funding agreement. I suggest that that does not make any sense and is not the intention of the Bill, although it seems to me, and, I think, to others, that that is what the Bill as drafted actually does. I have brought this to the attention of the Minister. I am grateful to him for his time in discussing the issue with me and to his officials for reaching out to discuss the matter with others. I am confident that a solution can be found to this perhaps niche, but none the less important, issue; otherwise, I support the Bill and look forward to participating in its further stages in your Lordships’ House.