Australian courts have wide discretion to award costs orders against either party to cover the opposing party’s costs of litigation. The general rule is that costs follow the event. This means that the unsuccessful party will be liable to pay the litigation costs of the successful party. The aim of this rule is to achieve a just outcome by shifting the costs burden on to the party which is found to have either unjustifiably brought another party before the court or given another party cause to have recourse to the court to obtain their rights.
Where each litigant has enjoyed some success in the proceedings, courts may modify the general rule to make costs orders that reflect the litigants’ relative success and failure. Courts may depart from the general rule by requiring a successful party to bear their own costs where there is good cause to do so. Such an outcome may be justified where, for example, a successful plaintiff is awarded only nominal damages, or a party succeeds only due to late and substantial amendments to their case.
Of particular strategic importance is the rule that generally a court will not award costs to a successful party which has obtained relief no more favorable than had already been offered by his or her opponent in settlement discussions. This rule is designed to encourage the early resolution of litigated disputes.
Costs orders are subject to a costs assessment process administered by the courts. It is unusual that a party will be able to recover all of its actual legal costs through this process. On a standard assessment, parties may recover approximately 60% to 75% of their actual costs. A higher rate of assessment, on an indemnity basis, may be employed where a party has engaged in unreasonable conduct in the proceeding.
All courts in Australia will charge fees for commencing civil proceedings (often referred to as a filing fee). Some jurisdictions, particularly superior courts, will also charge additional fees including but not limited to daily hearing fees (calculated by reference to the length of the trial), filing fees for notices of motions/applications and the issuing of subpoenas to third parties. These fees are set by the courts and are published on their websites. They are usually reviewed on a yearly basis. By way of example, the current (2019) rate for commencing proceedings in the Federal Court of Australia is AUD4,045 for corporations and the hearing fee for a five-day trial is AUD19,730 for corporations.