The court was asked whether Moir would be entitled to legal aid to bring a derivative action on behalf of a company against its majority shareholder.
Held: A minority shareholder bringing a derivative action on behalf of a company could obtain the authority of the court to sue as if he were a trustee suing on behalf of a fund, with the same entitlement to be indemnified out of the assets against his costs and any costs he may be ordered to pay to the other party. The court said that the minority shareholder could make a Beddoe application in the same way as a trustee and so secure an assurance that he would not be personally liable for any costs. Since he was asserting the company’s cause of action on the company’s behalf, the Legal Aid provisions prevented the grant of legal aid.
Denning LJ said of someone bringing an action on behalf of the company that ‘the minority shareholder, being an agent acting on behalf of the company is entitled to be indemnified by the company against all costs and expenses reasonably incurred by him in the course of the agency. It is analogous to the indemnity to which a trustee is entitled from his cestui que trust who is sui juris.’
As to the position of a solicitor in litigation, he said: ‘It may be worthwhile to indicate briefly the nature of the public policy question. It can, I think, be summarised in two statements; first in litigation a professional lawyer’s role is to advise his client with a clear eye and an unbiased judgment; secondly, a solicitor retained to conduct litigation is not merely the agent and adviser to his client, but also an officer of the court, with a duty to the court to ensure that his client’s case which he must of course present and conduct with the utmost of care of his client’s interests, is also presented and conducted with scrupulous fairness and integrity. A barrister has similar obligations. A legal adviser who acquires a personal financial interest in the outcome of the litigation may obviously find himself in a situation in which that interest conflicts with those obligations.’
. . And ‘It is a fundamental principle of our law that a company is a legal person, with its own corporate identity, separate and distinct from the directors or shareholders, and with its own property rights and interests to which alone it is entitled. If it is defrauded by a wrongdoer, the company itself is the one person to sue for the damage. Such is the rule in Foss v. Harbottle (1843) 2 Hare 461. The rule is easy enough to apply when the company is defrauded by outsiders. The company itself is the only person who can sue. Likewise, when it is defrauded by insiders of a minor kind, once again the company is the only person who can sue. But suppose it is defrauded by insiders who control its affairs – by directors who hold a majority of the shares – who then can sue for damages? Those directors are themselves the wrongdoers. If a board meeting is held, they will not authorise the proceedings to be taken by the company against themselves. If a general meeting is called, they will vote down any suggestion that the company should sue them themselves. Yet the company is the one person who is damnified. It is the one person who should sue. In one way or another some means must be found for the company to sue. Otherwise the law would fail in its purpose. Injustice would be done without redress.’
Scarman LJ said: ‘The indemnity is a right distinct from the right of a successful litigant to his costs at the discretion of the trial judge; it is a right which springs from a combination of factors – the interest of the company and its shareholders, the relationship between the shareholder and the company, and the court’s sanction (a better word would be ‘permission’) for the action to be brought at the company’s expense. It is a full indemnity such as an agent has who incurs expense in the authorised business of his principal.’
Buckley LJ said: ‘[T]here are circumstances in which a party can embark on litigation with a confident expectation that he will be indemnified in some measure against costs. A trustee who properly and reasonably prosecutes or defends an action relating to his trust property or the execution of the trusts is entitled to be indemnified out of the trust property. An agent is entitled to be indemnified by his principal against costs incurred in consequence of carrying out the principal’s instructions . . The next friend of an infant plaintiff is prima facie entitled to be indemnified against costs out of the infant’s estate . . It seems to me that in a minority shareholder’s action, properly and reasonably brought and prosecuted, it would normally be right that the company should be ordered to pay the plaintiff’s costs so far as he does not recover them from any other party. In all the instances mentioned the right of the party seeking indemnity to be indemnified must depend on whether he has acted reasonably in bringing or defending the action, as the case may be: see, for example, as regards a trustee, In re Beddoe, Downes v Cottam  1 Ch 557. It is true that this right of a trustee, as well as that of an agent, has been treated as founded in contract. It would, I think, be difficult to imply a contract of indemnity between a company and one of its members. Nevertheless, where a shareholder has in good faith and on reasonable grounds sued as plaintiff in a minority shareholder’s action, the benefit of which, if successful, will accrue to the company and only indirectly to the plaintiff as a member of the company, and which it would have been reasonable for an independent board of directors to bring in the company’s name, it would, I think, clearly be a proper exercise of judicial discretion to order the company to pay the plaintiff’s costs. This would extend to the plaintiff’s costs down to judgment, if it would have been reasonable for an independent board exercising the standard of care which a prudent business man would exercise in his own affairs to continue the action to judgment. If, however, an independent board exercising that standard of care would have discontinued the action at an earlier stage, it is probable that the plaintiff should only be awarded his costs against the company down to that stage . . There is a well established practice in Chancery for a trustee who has it in mind to bring or defend an action in respect of his trust estate to apply to the court for directions: see In re Beddoe, Downes v Cottam  1 Ch. 557. If and so far as he is authorised to proceed in the action, the trustee’s right to be indemnified in respect of his costs out of the trust property is secure. If he proceeds without the authority of an order of the court, he does so at his own risk as to costs. It seems to me that a similar practice could well be adopted in a minority shareholder’s action.’
Buckley LJ also discussed the role of a legal adviser in litigation and the nature of a contingency fee, saying: ‘A contingency fee, that is, an arrangement under which the legal advisers of a litigant shall be remunerated only in the event of the litigant succeeding in recovering money or other property in the action, has hitherto always been regarded as illegal under English law on the ground that it involves maintenance of the action by the legal adviser. Moreover where, as is usual in such a case, the remuneration which the adviser is to receive is to be, or to be measured by, a proportion of the fund or of the value of the property recovered, the arrangement may fall within that particular class of maintenance called champerty . . It may, however, be worthwhile to indicate briefly the nature of the public policy question. It can, I think, be summarised in two statements. First, in litigation a professional lawyer’s role is to advise his client with a clear eye and an unbiased judgment. Secondly, a solicitor retained to conduct litigation is not merely the agent and adviser to his client, but also an officer of the court with a duty to the court to ensure that his client’s case, which he must, of course, present and conduct with the utmost care of his client’s interests, is also presented and conducted with scrupulous fairness and integrity. A barrister owes similar obligations. A legal adviser who acquires a personal financial interest in the outcome of the litigation may obviously find himself in a situation in which that interest conflicts with those obligations.’
Buckley LJ, Scarman LJ, Denning LJ
 QB 373,  1 All ER 849,  2 WLR 389
England and Wales
Cited – In re Beddoe, Downes v Cottam CA 1893
In case of doubt as to the desirability of the intended proceedings (whether as plaintiff or defendant), trustees may apply to the court for directions. This will protect the trustees from adverse costs orders. If given leave to sue or defend by the . .
Cited – Pittman v Prudential Deposit Bank Ltd CA 1896
The parties had agreed to assign the judgment debt to the solicitor acting.
Held: The agreement was champertous as an assignment of an interest in litigation, and therefore was void, having been made before judgment and even though it had been . .
Cited – Foss v Harbottle 25-Mar-1843
Company alone may sue for legal wrong against it.
A bill was lodged by two of the proprietors of shares in a company incorporated by Act of Parliament, on their own and the other shareholders’ behalf. They claimed against three bankrupt directors, a proprietor, solicitor and architect charging them . .
See Also – Wallersteiner v Moir CA 1974
The making of a declaration is a judicial act. A shareholder is entitled to bring a derivative action on behalf of the company when it is controlled by persons alleged to have injured the company who refuse to allow the company to sue. It is an . .
Cited – Westdeutsche Landesbank Girozentrale v Islington London Borough Council HL 22-May-1996
Simple interest only on rate swap damages
The bank had paid money to the local authority under a contract which turned out to be ultra vires and void. The question was whether, in addition to ordering the repayment of the money to the bank on unjust enrichment principles, the court could . .
Cited – Norglen Ltd (In Liquidation) v Reeds Rains Prudential Ltd and Others; Circuit Systems Ltd (In Liquidation) and Another v Zuken-Redac HL 1-Dec-1997
An assignment of a cause of action by a company in liquidation was valid, even though the dominant purpose was to avoid having to give security for costs, and to get legal aid. In dismissing the argument that the transactions were a device to defeat . .
Cited – Corner House Research, Regina (on the Application of) v Secretary of State for Trade and Industry CA 1-Mar-2005
The applicant sought to bring an action to challenge new rules on approval of export credit guarantees. The company was non-profit and founded to support investigation of bribery. It had applied for a protected costs order to support the . .
Considered – Picton Jones and Co v Arcadia Developments 1989
The plaintiff chartered surveyors agreed to act in the purchase of amusement arcades, on the basis that their fees would be payable ‘in the event of ultimate success.’ The work involved applications for gaming licences and planning permissions. The . .
Cited – Roberts v Gill and Co Solicitors and Others SC 19-May-2010
The claimant beneficiary in the estate sought damages against solicitors who had acted for the claimant’s brother, the administrator, saying they had allowed him to take control of the assets in the estate. The will provided that property was to be . .
Cited – Regina (Factortame Ltd and Others) v Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (No 8) CA 3-Jul-2002
A firm of accountants had agreed to provide their services as experts in a case on the basis that they would be paid by taking part of any damages awarded. The respondent claimed that such an agreement was champertous and unlawful.
Held: The . .
Cited – Media Cat Ltd v Adams and Others PCC 18-Apr-2011
The claimants had begun copyright infringement cases. Having been refused a request to be allowed to withdraw the cases as an abuse, their solicitors now faced an application for a wasted costs order.
Held: The court only has jurisdiction to . .
Cited – Sibthorpe and Morris v London Borough of Southwark CA 25-Jan-2011
The court was asked as to the extent to which the ancient rule against champerty prevents a solicitor agreeing to indemnify his claimant client against any liability for costs which she may incur against the defendant in the litigation in which the . .
Cited – Morris and Another v London Borough of Southwark QBD 5-Feb-2010
The residential tenant claimant sought damages from her council for failure to repair her flat. The counciil now objected to being asked to pay her costs, saying that the agreement with her solicitors was champertous, being a Conditional Fee . .
Cited – Iesini and Others v Westrip Holdings Ltd and Others ChD 16-Oct-2009
The claimants were shareholders in Westrip, accusing the Defendant directors of deliberately engaging in a course of conduct which has led to Westrip losing ownership and control of a very valuable mining licence and which, but for their . .
Cited – Smith v Croft ChD 1986
Walton J was concerned with two appeals from the Master. The first appeal was from an order made ex parte ordering the company to indemnify the claimant against costs. The appeal against that order was allowed, and Walton J decided that there was so . .
Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.
Litigation Practice, Legal Aid, Company
Updated: 11 November 2021; Ref: scu.194034