High Court Upholds District Court Scale Fees in Circuit Court Personal Injury Case

In a significant ruling, the High Court has upheld the application of District Court scale fees in personal injury cases heard in the Circuit Court. The recent case of Nolan v. The County Registrar for the County of Waterford & Ors [2024] IEHC 253 concluded that this practice does not violate section 17(4) of the Courts Act 1981, which prohibits courts from setting fixed limits on legal costs.  

In this article, Clíona O’Brien, Solicitor gives an overview of the judgement.  


The case concerned an applicant who sustained personal injuries from a fall on a public footpath in Dungarvan.  

The applicant pursued legal action in Waterford Circuit Court and was awarded €8,000 in damages. Despite the case being heard in the Circuit Court, the damages fell within the District Court’s jurisdictional limit of €15,000, leading to costs being awarded according to the District Court scale. 

The applicant’s legal costs totalled €32,986.89, including €19,414.44 for solicitor’s fees and €2,350.00 for counsel’s fees, excluding VAT. At taxation before the County Registrar, these fees were significantly reduced to €2,250 and €800 for both solicitor and counsel fees respectively This substantial reduction prompted the applicant to seek a judicial review, arguing that the District Court Rules Committee and the County Registrar breached section 17(4) of the Courts Act 1981 by imposing scale fees. 

High Court Analysis 

Section 17(4) prohibits court rules that restrict the recoverable amount of legal costs. Mr. Justice Barr also considered section 141 of the Legal Services Regulation Act 2015, which outlines the criteria for assessing the reasonableness of legal costs. 

Mr. Justice Barr highlighted the practical considerations in instigating legal proceedings, stating that pursuing a case in a higher court when it could be handled more quickly and more economically in a lower court, is impractical. He stated “The amount of legal costs recoverable from a defendant cannot in justice be out of all proportion to the amount of damages obtained. Despite the strict wording of section 17(4) Mr. Justice Barr concluded that the District Court Rules Committee had the authority to establish scales for recoverable fees, supported by the Courts of Justice Act 1924. 

The principles of statutory interpretation and policy reasons, as highlighted in O’Connor v Bus Atha Cliath [2003], were restated in this case favouring the awarding of costs, based on the jurisdiction of the lowest suitable court. 

Outcome and Implication for Legal Practitioners  

Ultimately, Mr. Justice Barr found no evidence that the County Registrar failed to consider the relevant factors in schedule 1 of the 2015 Act, ruling that the applicant’s constitutional right of access to the courts was not violated.  

Consequently, the High Court denied the relief sought by the applicant. 

Mr Justice Barr emphasised the importance of a standardised scale of recoverable fees to ensure predictability and stated that this “enables people to know what level of legal costs they are likely to face if they are unsuccessful in a civil action heard in the District Court”.  

This ruling highlights the importance for legal practitioners to discuss cost implications and potential damages with their client from the outset and throughout the progression of the case.  

It is crucial to assess whether initiating proceedings in the Circuit Court is justified, particularly when the potential award aligns with the District Court’s jurisdictional limits. 

Nolan v. The County Registrar for the County of Waterford & Ors [2024] IEHC 253