The High Court trial between 3aaa co-founder Peter Marples and the Department for Education is set to take place in 2025 – and the loser will have to foot a near-£3 million legal bill.
A costs and case management conference for the high-value case was held this week, in which the DfE was ordered to disclose “key” evidence relating to the sales of other training providers ahead of the 15-day trial.
Ten witnesses are expected from Marples’ side, while the DfE will have five witnesses of its own.
Costs were not discussed during this week’s hearing, but FE Week understands the total legal bill for Marples will be just over £1 million, while the DfE is expected to rack up £1.9 million in costs.
Whichever side loses the case will have to pay the other side’s legal fees.
Marples and three members of his family are attempting to sue the DfE for the then-Skills Funding Agency’s alleged refusal to sign off on the change of ownership of former apprenticeship giant 3aaa in 2016 to TLP (Trilantic Capital Partners LLP), two years before the company went bust amid an investigation and police referral.
The family is seeking at least £37 million in damages.
The DfE’s legal bill is higher than Marples’ due to the disclosure of evidence costs involved, which hit nearly £1 million on their own.
Master Clark this week ordered the DfE to release documentation that related to the “change of control” of 11 other provider sales that the SFA allegedly consented to between 2015 and 2019, despite resistance from DfE lawyer Michael Walsh.
Walsh argued that this was an attempt by Marples’ team to “cast the widest possible net in what is a fishing expedition”.
“What the disclosure issues ought to relate to is the actual decision under challenge where the allegations are made about the TLP acquisition and not some early decision or indeed a decision about companies which bear no relation to the claimants,” he said.
Marples’ lawyer, Mark Harper KC, argued the DfE’s decision to not consent to the 3aaa change of control was “negligent” because the department has never taken this approach in relation to any other change of control request.
“We will say when it comes to considering those documents, there’ll be a clear difference in approach as to how the defendant approached the request by other companies to how it then approached the TLP request,” Harper said.
Master Clark ruled that the documents are relevant, but their release must be “proportionate”. Discussions between the two legal teams are now ongoing about what specific documentation relating to other provider changes of control should be released.
The DfE was also ordered to release “narrative” evidence related to how the SFA made the decision not to approve the claimant’s change of control request in respect to the TLP acquisition, including what matters it considered in doing so and what process and procedure was adopted.
DfE is now required to search for and disclose, for example, emails between then-Skills Funding Agency chief executive Peter Lauener and his colleagues where they discussed the decision.
Master Clark also ruled that the DfE must disclose communication between the SFA and former FE Week editor Nick Linford which related to 3aaa and Peter Marples during a specific time period.
Disclosure of all documents must be completed by the end of June 2024.
The exact date of the trial is yet to be decided, but the window for it will be between January and October 2025.
You can download all of the published legal files related to the case at the end of this article