Consultation on ACL articles and bye-laws to launch next month, AGM hears

Chair Jack Ridgway says 2023 was a “good year” for the Association and lays out plans for 2024

A consultation on updating the ACL’s articles and bye-laws will be launched next month as a key preparatory step for seeking a Royal charter, chair Jack Ridgway announced at last week’s AGM.

He declared 2023 to have been “a good year for the Association, with significant progress made on modernisation and engagement”.

Issues raised at the AGM included the possibility of creating a special interest group for sole practitioners, who make up around a third of the membership.

In his review of 2023, Mr Ridgway said the recently relaunched website had been a significant undertaking and still has more functionality to be added, which would further enrich the member experience. This will include a greater CPD offering.

“Engagement has increased, with more ways for members to interact with the Association and each other,” he said. “The support lent to separate groups such as Costs in the City and Women in Costs are opportunities for the Association to reach out to non-members and to promote costs to the wider legal profession.”

The ACL has reached out to members who have not renewed, resulting in several members re-joining, while members will be able add specialisms to their details on the website, allowing them to promote their expertise.

Progress on governance was hindered by the focus on consultations that were very important to the membership – specifically those on fixed costs and civil legal aid. Thus, a mid-year town hall became a forum for views on fixed costs reform.

“The Council remains conscious of the need to stagger consultations to ensure that members are not overwhelmed, and that there is fair opportunity to respond,” Mr Ridgway said. But new draft articles and bye-laws have been prepared and a consultation will be launched at the Manchester conference next month.

The update is needed to apply for chartered status and “there is now a clear path to achieve this in 2024”, he went on.

He told the AGM that chartered status would protect the title – the Costs Lawyer Standards Board is tracking a few people holding themselves out as Costs Lawyers – and also provide greater clarity to clients, the public and other professionals.

Other plans for this year included exploring new regional groups in the Midlands, East Anglia, South-Coast and South Wales, while from the floor former chair Sue Nash suggested a special interest group for sole practitioners. Views on this from members are encouraged.

The ACL will also be supporting the CLSB’s push to open up judicial appointments to Costs Lawyers, Mr Ridgway said. The two organisations have a strong relationship and this helped in dealings with the oversight regulator, the Legal Services Board, he added. They will be working together also on diversity; while the profession is good on social mobility in particular, there are other diversity measures where it does not perform so well.

As of 1 February 2024, 58% of the 702 Costs Lawyers with a practicing certificate were members of the ACL (ie, 412). The Association also has 17 subscribers, seven affiliates, five retired members and 78 trainee members.

The number of practising Costs Lawyers has increased from 2023, “demonstrating the benefit of ACL Training and the Costs Lawyer qualification”, Mr Ridgway said, noting that more experienced costs draftsmen were being drawn to the new course now that it was two years.

However, a worry is that the number of Costs Lawyers aged under 30 remains at an all-time low of 2%, “which is of concern to the long-term viability of the profession and Association”. The introduction of apprenticeships would hopefully start to address this.

The issue of only one or two Costs Lawyers at firms which employ many more being members of the ACL was raised at the AGM, alongside the idea of bulk membership. Vice-chair David Bailey-Vella said the Council was looking to engage with such firms but offering them some kind of discounted membership would be unfair to sole practitioners.

Mr Ridgway said calculations showed that the money gained from such an offer would be more than offset by the money lost through discounting the fees currently paid by members at large firms.

This led into a discussion of opening up the Association to non-Costs Lawyers – those with other legal qualifications can already become affiliates. Membership grades will be considered as part of next month’s consultation, including whether to reintroduce fellowship as a way of denoting a level of experience that should be recognised by the guideline hourly rates.

The Association has been financially stable for several years, with a “healthy” profit of £21,000 in 2023. It is projected to be around £3,000 this year and Mr Ridgway flagged a possible small increase in the membership fee, which has not risen since 2019, for next year.

From the floor, Ian Curtis-Nye praised the special interest and regional groups, and the discussions that took place around government consultations. In addition to promoting Costs Lawyers to the rest of the legal profession, he said, “we need to be promoting ourselves to each other as well”.

The issue of returning to a printed Costs Lawyer Journal was raised but Mr Ridgway said the cost of doing so would wipe out the surplus.

He discussed how the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) was starting to see “a real increase” in costs disputes since the comments of the Master of the Rolls, Sir Geoffrey Vos, last year in Belsner.

The Legal Services Act 2007 does not currently permit LeO to outsource cases – “I think they would love to get a panel of Costs Lawyers and outsource all of those questions that they don’t know the answers to,” said Mr Ridgway – but the ACL was talking to the service about providing staff with training or how LeO could signpost complainants to a Costs Lawyer.

Another project for this year will be to survey members, probably anonymously, on their charges so as to understand “the cost of Costs Lawyers”. This information will be used to explain to solicitors the cost-effectiveness of using members’ skills.

Treasurer Stephen Averill told the AGM that last summer he adopted a new approach to the ACL’s investments, with an annual review which last year saw “significant changes” to the portfolio. The benefits of this, “quite a significant upswing in how those investments are performing”, are likely to show in next year’s accounts.

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21 Mar 2024

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