The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) yesterday delivered a landmark ruling, where it reversed a decision of the Court of Appeal and restored the judgment of High Court Judge Joan Charles in a matter involving costs.
Charles had ordered former chairman of Trinidad Cement Limited (TCL) Rollin Clifton Bertrand, and Caribbean Cement Limited (CCL), to pay Dr Anthony Elias’ costs in a defamation claim they filed against him when they discontinued their claim just before trial.
The judge had ordered the costs in favour of Elias, indicating they should be quantified on the “assessed costs scale”. This scale of costs permits the court to order a reasonable sum of money incurred by a defendant in defending a claim.
However, the Court of Appeal reversed Charles’ decision and instead ordered the claimants to pay Elias’ costs, but to be quantified on a lower scale known as the “prescribed costs regime.”
This meant that the claimants would have only had to pay Elias $27,000.
The costs they would have had to pay to Elias if the costs were quantified on the assessed costs scale could have amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
However, Elias appealed the decision of the Court of Appeal to the JCPC.
The trial was scheduled to begin on January 20, 2015, but a few days before, the claimants discontinued the matter.
The claimants had the financial backing of the two companies, while Elias had to retain private attorneys to defend the claim for over four years.
The statements Elias, who is a shareholder and doctor, made, were in relation to a cement crisis which involved defective cement supplied by CCL.
CCL had to recall hundreds of tonnes of defective cement and the shareholders were assured by Bertrand that there would be no liability by the shareholders for the defective cement.
At subsequent shareholder meetings, Elias alleged that Bertrand gave the shareholders inaccurate information and accused him of misconduct and mismanagement of the financial affairs of the companies.
The JCPC, in its judgment, decided that the prescribed costs regime, under the Rules of Court of Trinidad and Tobago, ought to be awarded by the court in the exercise of its discretion for genuine claims.
It decided, therefore, that the prescribed costs regime should not be used to protect the companies and Bertrand from reimbursing Elias for reasonable costs he incurred in defending the unfounded claim.
It further held that the claim should not have been brought.
The JCPC also stated that claimants can bring groundless claims of defamation against defendants and then just before trial, discontinue the claims—and then ask the court to award costs against it based on the prescribed costs regime.
The JCPC ordered the costs of Elias to be paid by the claimants, once this is assessed by a Master in Chambers.
In addition, it also set aside the judgment of the Court of Appeal and instead ordered the costs to be assessed by a Master in Chambers.
Elias was represented by Ramesh L Maharaj, SC, assisted by Robert Strang, Vijaya Maharaj, Michael Rooplal and Isa Dookie.
Ian Benjamin, SC, appeared for Bertrand, while Jason K Mootoo, SC, appeared for the two companies.