Many solicitors and judges were not ready for the electronic bill of costs when it became compulsory in April and few are keen on it now, according to an ACL survey carried out earlier this summer.
There are, however, small signs that solicitors are getting better at budgeting.
The poll of 82 Costs Lawyers found that only 10% said all the solicitors they dealt with were ready when the new bill came into force, compared to 56% who said none of them were.
Asked what solicitors’ reaction had been since, half said there was either a lot of last-minute panicking (13%) or had asked the Costs Lawyer to sort it out for them (37%). One in six solicitors preferred to stick their head in the sand and just put off dealing with it. Just 6% of Costs Lawyers said their solicitors had managed a smooth transition to the new regime.
Things were no better on the bench. Just 16% of Costs Lawyers reported that “some” judges were ready for the new bill, while only 5% found that the courts were “keen to get going” with it. Some judges would use their discretion to waive use of the bill for as long as they could, Costs Lawyers said, while others could not get going even if they wanted because they had still not received the training or technology required.
The ACL conducts surveys of members twice a year and has been tracking views of solicitors’ approach to budgeting since autumn 2016. Some 20% of Costs Lawyers taking part this year said the solicitors they worked with were now sticking to their budgets, while 51% said they sometimes went over. More than a fifth (22%) said solicitors always exceeded their budgets. In each case, the figures show slow improvement on previous surveys.
Respondents were asked their view on one particularly topical budgeting issue, namely whether a costs judge who reduces the hourly rates for incurred costs should then do the same to budgeted costs. Two-thirds (65%) said no – coming within the budget should be sufficient.
There was also continuing concern about the inconsistent application of the proportionality test by judges, with 56% saying that Court of Appeal guidance was needed.
ACL chairman Iain Stark (pictured) said: “It is perhaps no surprise that many solicitors are struggling to come to terms with the new bill of costs, with many yet to have either the technology or the time-recording processes in place. But the time will come, sooner rather than later, when they will literally pay the price for their failure to adapt.
“Most district and costs judges will not have yet dealt with an electronic bill, due to the time lag in them reaching court, which is fortuitous given some of the delays in providing training and technology. But both judges and lawyers will have to get on top of it – this is, without doubt, the future.
“With the culture of compliance that has sharpened since the Jackson reforms, I would not be surprised to see judges clamping down on those who wilfully ignore the electronic bill.”