Their case, judgment on which was given earlier this month, spent 10 days in the Sheffield county court, and then a further day in the Court of Appeal. The costs racked up on each side must have been at least £50,000, and may have been much more. One party ended up paying most of the other's costs. This was a very expensive exercise for a dispute about a domestic extension.
It all started out as a claim by the builder, a Mr Willers, who was a neighbour of the Boyntons. He said that he was owed £20,086, that being the balance of the price of work done. The works had originally been priced at £53,460, but the Boyntons said they were defective and that they had a counterclaim for £45,726. The counterclaim related to all sorts of problems ranging from flooring defects to external works. Some complaints were upheld by the court and some were not. One particular item was a pair of bay windows. These were found to be defective and needed replacement at a cost of £5418.
The question was, were the bay windows in the original price or not? Mr Willers said that he had not priced them because at the time no decision had been made about their design. He had not charged for them in the original price, nor in his variation account, and so he had in fact given the windows for free. So he said that even if the windows were defective, he should not have to pay for their replacement. The judge in Sheffield agreed, and so did the Court of Appeal. Moral: sort out the specification properly before entering into a contract.
The Boyntons had been living in a caravan during the work. They said that as a result of the builder's late completion, they had been obliged to stay an extra three months in their caravan. Furthermore their house and lives had been seriously messed about over a long period while remedial works were carried out. They claimed damages for their distress, inconvenience and disruption. The county court judge gave them the princely sum of £500 for all that.
For all their distress, inconvenience and disruption, the court gave the couple the princely sum of £500
The Court of Appeal went through all the authorities the lawyers could find to decide what figure was appropriate. Five hundred pounds was clearly on the low side. In fact it was on the low side of the low side.
But the Boyntons had come up with very little evidence of real problems, other than the fact that they had had an extended period of living in their caravan, and the delay aspect of the counterclaim had been rejected. The figure of £500 was upheld. Moral: if you are going to claim damages for inconvenience and the like in this sort of case, produce some serious evidence.
Then of course there was the question of costs. Netting off the successful counterclaims against the proper claim by the builder, the Boyntons were found to owe Mr Willers £3910. The judge in Sheffield made an old-fashioned winner-takes-all costs order that the losers (Mr and Mrs Boynton) should pay the claimant's costs, and then twisted the knife by saying that the costs should be assessed on an "indemnity basis" for the majority of the trial, because the Boyntons had ignored the judge's comment that they should settle.
John Redmond is head of construction at solicitor Osborne Clarke in Bristol.