The Law Society has lodged a judicial review over the controversial decision to move all legal aid cost assessments in-house, arguing that the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) failed to consult properly.
Previously, the LAA only handled assessments worth less than £2,500 and the move – which came into force on 17 August – attracted strong criticism from the legal profession, with the ACL’s Legal Aid Group highlighting a range of concerns about the change.
When it was announced at the start of June, the LAA consulted only on amendments to the Cost Assessment Guidance, rather than the decision itself.
Law Society president Simon Davis said the old system has “worked well for practitioners and clients alike” for many years and the profession had not been “fairly” consulted about ditching it.
“Calculating cost assessments can be a complicated process which requires a level of skill and experience, and sufficient time. The LAA’s predecessor – the Legal Services Commission – transferred larger cost assessments to the courts for this reason…
“We have issued proceedings on a protective basis. We invite the LAA to talk to us and engage in a full and proper discussion so that we don’t have to carry on with the proceedings.
“It is only right that the profession is fully and fairly consulted in how their bills will be assessed – which will have a significant impact on their business at a time when many firms are already financially stretched.”
The Law Society said its concerns about the switch included that the LAA might not have enough qualified staff and resources to handle moving all cost assessments in-house – which could create issues with processing bills and delays in legal aid firms receiving payments.
Further, LAA assessments of larger bills created “a significant conflict of interests as the assessor is also the paying party”, while the Law Society argued that the costs appeals process was not properly independent “as it is controlled by the LAA, which also appoints and remunerates the independent costs assessors”.
Picture credit: Matt Brown (used under Creative Commons licence, cropped)