Court: “No need for City lawyer” in professional executor tussle

Probate: Simple will

The High Court has ruled that there was no need for a more expensive City lawyer to be appointed a professional executor in preference to one from the Home Counties in a straightforward probate.

Deputy Master Linwood said that, given the “relatively modest and simple estate”, the difference in the hourly rate, in this case £240, was “more of a determining factor when other factors are equal”.

He said: “I fully appreciate that hourly rates are not the be all and end all in such circumstances.

“In considering cost budgets I always look first at the cost per phase to see if it is reasonable and proportionate and then whether it is comparable, first as to work to be done and secondly as to estimated costs with that of the opposing party.”

The deputy master said here the proposed budgets were not directly comparable, because the scope of the work was not agreed between the parties, so he was “thrown back on the hourly rates.”

The High Court heard in Liu v Matyas [2020] EWHC 2807 (Ch) that Huan Liu died in April 2017, aged 47.

He and Tibor Matyas had been in a relationship for about 14 years in London, both in their personal lives and as partners in a luxury goods business.

Under his will, Huan Liu appointed Mr Matyas and his brother Pu, based in China, as executors.

The will was clear, with no complicated or unusual provisions, and the estate was valued at about £920,000.

Pu Liu issued a part 8 claim in October last year asking for Mr Matyas to be removed as executor because he had “refused to participate” in obtaining a grant of probate.

Alternatively Pu asked for both executors to be replaced by Peter Daniel, a partner at London law firm Collyer Bristow.

In July this year, Mr Matyas maintained that he was willing to take out a grant of probate with Pu before Pu launched proceedings. However, he agreed that both men should be replaced by a solicitor executor.

Mr Matyas put forward Sukhi Bagha, a partner in Curzon Green based in High Wycombe.

Deputy Master Linwood said Mr Daniel “qualified in 2008, specialises in trusts, tax and estate planning, and has specifically acted for high net-worth individuals, particularly those with cross jurisdictional affairs”. He had 12 years of post-qualification experience (PQE).

Ms Bagha’s extra two years of PQE made “no difference”, the deputy master said, and she was “not a specialist, as Mr Daniel is, as she also deals with conveyancing and wills”.

Their hourly rates were “substantially different”, with Ms Bagha charging £250 and Mr Daniel £490 plus VAT, although the rates for their assistants were similar.

The deputy master said there was “little between” the partners in knowledge and experience, and Mr Daniel had “no real advantage” from his greater contentious probate experience.

“Solicitors of this level of expertise… should be able to conduct and advise at the appropriate level or else turn to a litigation colleague and/or counsel,” he ruled.

Although there might be an “international dimension” to the case, neither Mr Daniel nor Ms Bagha spoke Cantonese or Mandarin.

Deputy Master Linwood concluded: “There is no need in the circumstances of this probate, for a City lawyer, with large back-up teams and commensurate resources and overheads, and hence higher costs due to hourly rates.

“Here, the executorship of this relatively modest and simple estate with three properties, and several bank accounts, and little if anything more means that the hourly rate is more of a determining factor when other factors are equal, or else otherwise not influential.”

He appointed Ms Bagha as the professional executor and also awarded costs of the action against Mr Matyas on the indemnity basis because of his conduct – latterly as a litigant in person – in making baseless allegations of fraud and sending “huge amount of intemperate correspondence” to the court and the parties.

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