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Costs orders and litigation – beware unpredictable outcomes and always take settlement offers seriously

An article by Zohra Ali of Stacklaw:

I was recently involved in a case where someone was offered half a million dollars as settlement, declined that offer, lost his case in the Supreme Court and had a costs order made against him. He subsequently decided to make an application to the Court of Appeal, but he also lost the appeal and had another costs order made against him.

The costs of the two proceedings together are likely to equate to at least $250,000. This person has gone from potentially gaining half a million dollars to losing a quarter of a million.

“No win no fee” arrangements can lead to overlooking risk of adverse costs orders

The solicitors who ran this case ran it on a no win no fee basis. This means that if the client does not win the case, the solicitors do not charge any professional fees.

The no win no fee method can be quite enticing and useful for those who do not have the funds to engage in litigation but may have a strong case. The downside in these situations however, is that the risk of having to pay the other party’s costs often gets overlooked.

Outcome of litigation inherently unpredictable

Anytime someone engages in litigation, they need to consider any settlement offers received carefully and accept the fact that no matter how prepared you are or how strong a case you may feel you have, there is always the risk that you might not win.

And if you do not win, you can be subject to a hefty costs order that could completely change your life, and not for the better.

How can I still lose when my legal advisers are telling me I have a strong case?

This is a good question, and there are a number of reasons.

You may have a strong case, but you might be called to the stand to give evidence. If this happens, you might not be a good witness. Your solicitor is limited in how much guidance he or she can give you with respect to what to say in the witness box, as there is a fine ethical line between witness preparation and “witness coaching”.

Also, being in the witness box can be scary, nerve wracking and emotionally draining. These feelings can all impact negatively on how you answer questions and how you present yourself in the witness box. If you exude negative emotions or rub the judge up the wrong way, you could be inadvertently harming your own case.

All parties to litigation typically believe they have a strong case

Going to a final hearing is a gamble. You are placing the decision-making power into the hands of a third party, and hoping that on the basis of the evidence, they will make a decision in your favour.

While your evidence and claim may be strong, do not forget that the other party would not have taken the matter this far if they did not also believe they have a strong case.

Subconscious bias can cloud objectivity

Humans can declare objectivity in their decision making and can even appear to be objective. However, we cannot control the subjective influence our subconscious mind can have on a decision.

Sometimes we cannot consciously recognise our own biases regarding particular characteristics and/or behaviours. How can we ensure objectivity with respect to such biases if we do not even know that they exist?

The same applies to judges. You do not know the judge’s history, their story or their experiences. If the judge had a negative experience in the past and you bear any kind of resemblance or share a mannerism with someone who may have been the cause of that negative experience, this could be the cause of the downfall of your entire case.

At what point do judges decide who wins the case?

There is a theory among lawyers that judges have already made their decision fairly early on in the final hearing, and then work backwards to justify their decision in preparing judgment. While I do not know if it is true, I have noticed that whenever I read our firm’s fortnightly “Which case won?” newsletters, I instinctively lean towards a specific response without necessarily being familiar with the legalities of the case.

The majority of the time, the response I select is correct. Remember, judges review and become familiar with your claim before the final trial. The final trial is simply an opportunity for each party to present evidence and to present submissions, but if the judge already has some preconceived views about your claim, it may be difficult to persuade him or her to adopt a different viewpoint, especially if you are not aware of those preconceived views.

Different types of costs orders

If you have a case which is going to trial, you should become familiar with the different types of costs orders so that you know what kind of costs orders you may be facing.

Scaled costs are costs which are regulated by law and capped at a certain amount. Scaled costs are common in certain debt recovery matters where default judgment is given in favour of the plaintiff because the defendant never responded or filed a defence to the claim.

Solicitor/client costs are the costs that you pay to your lawyer. Unless you are in a no win no fee arrangement, these costs are payable to your lawyer regardless of the outcome of your case. Normally you would pay these costs on a weekly or monthly basis, depending on your solicitor’s billing schedule.

Party/party costs are the costs which the winning party in the case can recover from the unsuccessful party, in the event that an ordinary costs order has been made. The purpose of these orders is to compensate the winning party for their solicitor/client costs.

Indemnity costs are the costs payable to a successful party where the successful party has been subjected to unnecessary costs as a direct result of the conduct of the other party. The awarding of an indemnity costs order is made by the court upon an application from the aggrieved party.

An example of a circumstance where an indemnity costs order may be made is when a party has appealed the decision of a judge after being unsuccessful in their case, and subsequently loses that case too (as in the example given earlier).

Possible dire financial consequences of a costs order

If you receive a costs order against you, the costs order is automatically considered to be a court judgment. Bankruptcy notices can be served on the basis of the judgment.

If you are unable to negotiate a deal with the winning party, you could end up bankrupt. I say this because matters which go to a final hearing usually incur costs of $100,000 to $150,000 per party, depending on the complexity of the case.

If you appeal the decision and lose that too, as in the example at the beginning of this article, then you can add another hundred thousand and you are looking at $250,000 in costs being payable. Most people do not have $250,000 lying around.

Unless you are able to come up with that money (which could even mean needing to sell your house), you could be made bankrupt and most of your assets may vest into an appointed bankruptcy trustee who will then liquify your assets to satisfy creditor debts.

Emotional consequences of a costs order

Aside from the financial consequences of a costs order, there are significant emotional consequences as well. A costs order can put a strain on you and your family, and potentially cause marital problems.

It can cause you to feel resentment, regret and hatred. It can also cause you physical distress and real depression.

Bad reasons for going to court

Going to court and going to a final hearing is a serious matter with serious financial consequences. Do not let matters of principle, a misdirected search for justice or greed be the motivation for going to court.

Listen to your solicitors carefully, take settlement offers seriously and always be commercial and practical in your decision making. Do not let your heart rule your head, or you could end up in a far worse position than you were in when you embarked on the litigation.

Mediation
Mediation in Civil disputes can be invoked at any time and as many times as the parties like.  The process is without prejudice to the case and statistics show around 60% of cases can be resolved by the parties themselves through facilitative mediation.

Even where mediation is not successful in resolving the entire dispute it can narrow the scope of the dispute and save you time and money.

One thing that is for sure, is a mediated resolution to the case is something you will be happy with, because in the end, despite being facilitated by a professional mediator, it is your decision.

To find out more fill in this form and a qualified mediator will contact you for a no obligation free initial consultation to see if mediation is suitable for you.

Source : Stack Law

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Farm debt: Banking royal commission tipped to move on agribusiness mediation

Bloomberg

The banking royal commission is being urged put an end to the patchwork of state-based mediation schemes for agribusiness customers and establish a single national body for working through disputes with banks.

The move would deliver the time-poor inquiry headed by Commissioner Kenneth Hayne an easy win, with the current state-by-state system enjoying few supporters.

National Farmers Federation policy director Tony Mahar said the existing system, which only guaranteed farmers in Victoria, NSW and Queensland with access to a formal mediation service, was inadequate.

“It’s fragmented and unhelpful, what we need is a national approach for farmers and financial institutions.”

The Hayne royal commission is believed to be aware of the disjointed approach to mediation, drawing attention to the problem by dedicating two pages of its recent report on features of the Australian financial system to the issue, including the $68.6 billion in farm debt held by the big four banks.

The plights of farmers were not however specifically mentioned during the opening statements made by Commissioner Hayne and senior counsel assisting Rowena Orr, which signaled the royal commission would seek to explore misconduct in the home loans and consumer credit segments.

The idea of a national body has failed to get traction and was last seriously considered in 2014 when a drought and the ban on live exports conspired to put many farms under. Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce compelled the banks to attend a crisis meeting at the time and sketch out a workable solution.

Mr Maher said that a great deal of work had been done on the subject over the years, it had broad support among stakeholders and it was something the government should be able to deliver.

The establishment of a national farm debt mediation scheme was most recently recommended by the select committee on lending to primary production customers, which delivered its final report in December 2017.

It recommended a scheme based on the NSW model with a $10 million ceiling on loan amounts.

Australian Banker’s Association CEO Anna Bligh has also thrown her support behind a nationwide mediation scheme to resolve issues that crop up between farmers and their banks quickly and fairly.

“It shouldn’t matter whether you’re a farmer in Cootamundra, NSW or the Western Australian wheat belt you should be treated equally and have the same access to financial mediation” Ms Bligh said.

The newly established Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA) which replaces both the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) and the Credit and Investments Ombudsman (CIO) and the Superannuation Complaints Tribunal (SCT) will have a ceiling for loans under dispute of $5 million.

This is a significant increase from the ceiling of $2 million FOS was previously subject to. Data from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) shows that a ceiling of $5 million would cover 99 per cent of loans in the rural sector.

Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman Kate Carnell has been critical of the banks for trying to cap the size of loans defined as small business loans and therefore eligible for mediation rather than more expensive legal proceedings.
Mr Mahar said if agriculture exports were to reach a target of $100 billion per year then processes needed to be established for when farms get into difficulty.

“We recognise that banking and farms are always going to be partners and nationally consistent approach will underpin this,” Mr Mahar said.

In the meantime,  while you wait for the Government to nationalize the Mediation system, if you need help now, contact us with the form below to arrange for a private and  confidential free consultation as to whether private mediation can help you with your Farm or Banking debts.

Source : Australian Financial Review

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Farm Debt Mediation Reforms: Has the farm house been spared?

The Farm Debt Mediation Scheme makes it compulsory for banks and other creditors to offer mediation to farmers before commencing debt recovery proceedings on farm mortgages.

A farmer has 21 days to respond to an offer to mediate, otherwise the creditor can commence action as normal.

Farm debt mediation is a structured negotiation process where a neutral and independent mediator assists the farmer and the creditor to try to reach agreement about current and future debt arrangements.

The mediator’s role is to facilitate the discussion and they will not provide advice on the matters in dispute.

Mediation is a simple, voluntary and confidential process that is quick, accessible and affordable.

The scheme is administered by the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources (DEDJTR) and further information can be sought from the Farm Debt Mediation Officer on 136 186. Mediations will be provided through the Victorian Small Business Commission.

This scheme applies only to:

  • farm mortgages covering a farm (or part of a farm), farm machinery or a water share (within the meaning of the Water Act 1989).
  • farmers, defined as: ‘a person (whether an individual person or a corporation) who is solely or principally engaged in a farming operation’. This includes people who own land cultivated under a share-farming agreement, or the personal representatives of a deceased farmer.
  • Guarantors to a farm mortgage need to be fully informed and involved in the process.

It is recommended that farmers seek assistance from their local Rural Financial Counsellor, Solicitor, Accountant or some other appropriately qualified person. These people can assist farmers to prepare for mediation, attend the mediation session with farmers, and help with any actions that need to be undertaken after the mediation session.

In Victoria the FARM DEBT MEDIATION ACT 2011 – SECT 1 Purpose states:

“purpose of this Act is to provide for the efficient and equitable resolution of farm debt disputes by requiring a creditor to provide a farmer with the option to mediate before taking possession of property or other enforcement action under a farm mortgage.”

In Queensland the new regime provides mortgagees must:

  • offer to the mortgagor farmer the option of pursuing mediation before commencing any enforcement action.(including by way of taking possession, exercising power of sale or giving a statutory enforcement notice);
  • take part in the mediation in good faith if the mortgagor farmer opts to pursue mediation; and
  • not enforce the mortgage in contravention of the Act.

In NSW after 23 years there is a review by the NSW Rural Assistance Authority’s (RAA’s) in their Strategic Plan 2015-2019 of the Farm Debt Mediation Act 1994 (NSW) (FDMA).

The review is part of the RRA’s initiative in partnership with the Australian Government to nationalise farm debt mediation, whilst driving economic growth within the industry and community.

The FDMA allows debtors in default of a farm mortgage to engage in facilitated mediation with creditors before the creditor takes enforcement action to recover the debt, allowing for the ‘efficient and equitable resolution of farm disputes.’(Section 3 FDMA)

What is Under Review?

The proposed changes impose strict obligations upon farmers to comply with the FDMA’s prescribed operation, yet eliminates some burdensome procedural requirements.

The proposed main changes are to:

  • expand the definition of “farmers” to include guarantors with an interest in an affected farm mortgage to be notified of and possibly attend mediation proceedings;
  • change the definition of “farm” so that it may be expanded to protect a broader range of farmers under the Australian New Zealand Standard Industrial Classification 2006 (ANZSIC), which excludes fishing, hunting and trapping from the FMDA.
  • The Review also proposes new guidelines requiring farmers to demonstrate they are principally involved in primary production.
  • exclusion of machinery such as motorbikes, quadbikes cars and trucks may no longer form the subject of debt mediation, as the law doesn’t currently exclude machinery that serves multiple purposes.

Other important changes include the proposed elimination of the requirement to establish a mediation claim in multiple jurisdictions, as well as the introduction of “show cause” notices and periods when answering to allegations made by creditors and lodging exemption periods. The law may also be amended so as to not apply to farm mortgages that are secured by a guarantor that is subject to a bankruptcy petition. It has also been suggested that the FDMA be clarified to ensure that subsequent mediations are not needed for a farmer’s default under agreements giving effect to the mediation, such as a contract or mortgage document.

The FDMA may also specify the methods in which a mediator is to be chosen to be prescribed by regulation, and may require the provisions of mortgage documents and correspondence to either the mediator or creditors during proceedings.

What does this mean for farmers?
The ability of guarantors to be notified and participate in mediation may relieve the burden upon farmers to claim protection of the FDMA by establishing the Act applies.

Farmers may be limited to which farm debts can be mediated, with certain machinery excluded.

The farmer may have new thresholds and requirements to establish they are a primary producer or involved in Agriculture, Aquiculture or Forestry and Logging as part of the ANZSIC Code.

Under the proposed changes, If the subject of the farm debt covers land in multiple states, farmers may no longer be required to submit claims in multiple jurisdictions.

Farm mortgages that are solely secured by a guarantor who is subject to a bankruptcy petition is unable to gain protection under the FDMA.

Farmers may no longer have the responsibility of nominating a mediator to which the creditor must agree.

What does this mean for practitioners?

Lawyers need to encourage their clients to respond promptly in proceedings as the right of famers to respond to allegations made by the creditor under s 11 within 28 days may become a legal requirement.

Lawyers may need to assist their client in effectively showing cause in order to submit an exemption period, which stays proceedings for 6 months.

Lawyers also need to be aware if their client defaults on agreements that give effect to the mediation under the proposed changes, that a subsequent mediation may not be required.

Accurate records of all correspondence and relevant mortgage documents should be kept as they be required by the mediator and/or creditor during proceedings.

Despite the changes which may appear to limit the ability of farmers to mediate their debt, mediation is overall a relatively inexpensive and efficient process. Between 12 February 1995 and 30 December 2016, the RAA reported that out of the 1659 ‘satisfactory mediations’ that have been undertaken under the FDMA, 1487 mediations resulted in parties reaching an agreement. This is an agreement rate of 90%.

Ultimately it is worth being aware of proposed changes to ensure that farmers are aware of their rights and obligations in mediating their debts, resulting in efficient and quick resolutions.

So when it comes to Farm Debt and Mediation, it makes sense to talk to an accredited mediator under the National Mediation Accreditation System,  someone who is registered with the Mediator Standards Board and has professional training on how to help manage and mediate such disputes if you find yourself in such a situation, you have 21 days to act.

Sources:
Danny Jovica : Mediator Accredited under NMAS/MSB/AMA.

Barraket Stanton

Copper Grace Ward

Agriculture Victoria