The debate about the future direction of the ACL began in earnest on Saturday, when around 50 members took part in a post-conference forum led by chairman Iain Stark (pictured).
It was a measured discussion set against the background of falling membership and student numbers, and the ACL making a loss in the past two financial years albeit buffered by the ACLT’s significant reserves. A representative of the association’s accountants said this made the ACL technically insolvent, but this was not a serious matter at this stage because it was still perfectly able to pay its bills.
He said the reserves meant the ACL has “time on your hands” to make a decision on the future.
The debate lasted 90 minutes with Mr Stark emphasising that, at this stage, there were no wrong answers.
The dominant theme on which all agreed was the need to protect the brand of Costs Lawyer. The question then was whether this was tied to the ACL or actually the fact of regulation by the CLSB.
Mr Stark floated the idea of the CLSB having full independence from the ACL, rather than the current position where the ACL is the approved regulator of Costs Lawyers that delegates its regulatory responsibility to the CLSB.
Might it be better for the ACL name to transfer to the CLSB as well, meaning a representative body under a name such as the Association of Costs Practitioners could be established? This could attract members from across the costs profession, meaning greater influence and income.
There were concerns from the floor about whether Costs Lawyers would become lost in such an organisation and so whether there might be membership tiers, with Costs Lawyers at the top. Should the ACL not focus on raising the profile and status of the 700 Costs Lawyers?
For Mr Stark, Costs Lawyers derived their status from their regulation, and tiers of membership would not work for a representative body.
Former chairman Matthew Harman suggested it might be better cast such an organisation as a specialist interest group for all those with an interest in costs – as APIL and FOIL do for claimant and defendant lawyers – than a representative body. Annette Livingstone raised the prospect of corporate membership for firms and chambers too.
There would also be the hope that members of such a body would see the benefits of becoming a Costs Lawyer.
The Monty Python-esque question of ‘what has the ACL ever done for us’ was raised – was a lack of perceived value why some Costs Lawyers were not ACL members? What would attract non-Costs Lawyers to the organisation? As vice-chairman Francis Kendall put it: “What do you want for £11 a month?” Mr Harman said he was the only one of 12 Costs Lawyers at his firm to be an ACL member because the partners could not see the value in paying for membership for all of them.
Costs Lawyer magazine was a good example of the present dilemma – while it is the most visible benefit of membership and with the hardcopy still appreciated by many members, it is also expensive to produce. Richard Allen talked about his experience of the numerous other benefits linked to membership of the Federation of Small Businesses – on top of its highly effective lobbying – but Francis Kendall wondered whether benefits such as a discount on shirts from TM Lewin were what Costs Lawyers wanted.
If judges at the SCCO refused to hear non-Costs Lawyers, new members would come flocking, another former chair, Wendy Popplewell, observed.
The next stage of the debate, Mr Stark said in closing, would be a discussion in Council, a paper to the membership that narrowed down the issues, and potentially an EGM to start the process of reform.
- Many members have already taken our annual survey of the current state of the profession. It will only take five minutes and can be found here. It is completely anonymous and the results will be used to inform policy and in ACL publicity. Thank you in advance.