Special Costs for Unsuccessfully Alleging Undue Influence

When a party wishes to allege undue influence, they must consider the cost consequences if this claim is unsuccessful.

A common question from parties to estate litigation (or any litigation) is whether the other side can be ordered to pay their costs. After a claim is determined on its merits, the court must decide upon the issue of costs.

The general rule is that costs follow the event, meaning that the successful party will receive costs payable by the unsuccessful party. However, in estate litigation the court may order that the costs of some or all parties be paid from the estate. The court will look at whether the litigation resulted from the conduct of the deceased (i.e. how they chose to set up their estate plan) or the conduct or motivations of a beneficiary.

In addition to who gets their costs, and who pays those costs, there is the issue of the scale of costs. In the ordinary course, costs are determined using a tariff system set out in the B.C. Supreme Court Civil Rules. However, the costs payable under this system are significantly less than a party’s actual legal fees, often a quarter or a third of the actual legal fees.

In some cases, a party can apply for “special costs”. Special costs are increased costs, which are intended to more closely resemble the reasonable fees actually charged by a lawyer to their client. Special cost awards are intended to address the conduct of a party. Special costs are awarded only in exceptional circumstances, where the conduct of the party is deserving of rebuke.

There are a number of cases in which special costs have been awarded in the face of unproven and unsubstantiated allegations of undue influence. This is because the allegation of undue influence is a serious one, impugning the character of another person. It has been compared to allegations of fraud, which also may attract an award of special costs if unfounded.

The B.C. Supreme Court recently considered this issue and the line of authority in Lambrecht v. Lambrecht Estate 2023 BCSC 1051. In Lambrecht, the Court observed that the primary considerations in previous cases were that allegations were pursued based on speculation, without foundation, and unduly prolonged the proceedings. In one case, costs were awarded where the allegations were only abandoned three days before trial.

In Lambrecht, the plaintiff advised before trial that he agreed to withdraw his claim of undue influence. Although the notice of civil claim was not amended to reflect this agreement, the court was advised of the concession at trial. The defendant argued that despite this agreement, the plaintiff continued to make assertions that the defendant acted improperly which were, in substance, allegations of undue influence, which the defendant was obliged to defend, and which the plaintiff knew had no chance of success.

The Court agreed with the plaintiff. Although the pleadings were not amended, the plaintiff advised that he would not pursue the claim of undue influence, and he maintained that position at trial. Even though the plaintiff was not successful in the claim that he did pursue (in resulting trust), that alone was not sufficient to warrant an order for special costs.

This case is an important reminder that if you are unable support allegations of undue influence which you make in your pleadings, you should carefully consider whether you want to pursue those allegations at trial. If you withdraw the allegations of undue influence far enough in advance, you can potentially avoid a special costs award that would otherwise be payable for making the unfounded allegations.

It should be noted, however, that the plaintiff was ordered to pay double costs because he failed to accept a formal offer to settle which was reasonable and ought to be accepted (triggering double costs under Rule 9-1 of the B.C. Supreme Court Civil Rules).