Solicitors “showing signs of progress” in approach to costs budgets, ACL survey finds

Solicitors continue to rack up costs in excess of court-approved budgets but there are signs of improvement, according to the survey of Costs Lawyers.

It also showed that judges have generally been keen to get on with using the electronic bill of costs, while the profession is starting to get used to it too.

A total of 146 Costs Lawyers responded to the poll, which was carried out by the ACL at November’s annual conference.

One in ten said solicitors have got better at sticking to their budgets, but 23% said solicitors always went over what was budgeted, and a further 53% said they sometimes went over. These figures are all improvements on the same survey in 2017 (where the figures were 5%, 29% and 65% respectively).

Some 22% reported more applications to revise budgets, although 19% said they had still never seen one – figures again that were better than the 2017 survey. Last month, a Queen’s Bench master said the bar for what constitutes a ‘significant development’ requiring revisions to a budget “should not be set too high”.

Four in ten Costs Lawyers (41%) said they were now getting used to the electronic bill of costs – with several saying they prefer the ACL’s own version – although a similar number still think it is making things worse, and 23% described it as a “hard sell” to solicitors.

While most Costs Lawyers were ready when the electronic bill came into force last April, 48% said the solicitors they dealt with were not. More positively, 43% of Costs Lawyers said all or some of their clients were ready.

Nevertheless, only 6% of Costs Lawyers reported that solicitors had transitioned easily to the new regime. Some 42% said solicitors had asked their Costs Lawyers to sort it all out, while 23% said their solicitors were just putting off dealing with it.

Although respondents said the judiciary was largely not ready for the introduction of the electronic bill either, 54% said judges were now “keen to get going” with it, compared to 24% who thought judges were going to waive the use of the new bill for as long as they could.

Some 58% of Costs Lawyers said the electronic bill had increased the costs of assessment, which is unsurprising as users get to grips with it.

Members were also asked about their views on the proportionality test and 58% called for Court of Appeal guidance on its operation, with 50% saying that “everyone has their own approach” and 46% noting that it depended on which judge you were before.

The survey showed too that the Costs Lawyer profession is in a largely positive state: 42% reported that their practice/department had grown over the previous year, 26% said it had stayed the same, and 27% said it had shrunk. Half said more work came in over the 12 months and 21% said they took on more staff. A sixth (17%) took on more advocacy work.

ACL chairman Iain Stark (pictured) said: “It is obviously good that the message about budgeting is getting through but, nearly six years on from its introduction, it is disappointing that it has taken so long. You would hope that solicitors would take more care with budgets and seek to revise them when needed, rather than relying on the increasingly difficult task of convincing the judge on assessment that they had a ‘good reason’ not to stick to the budget.

“The results indicate that the take-up of the electronic bill of costs may be smoother as parties and judges start to see the benefits of what should be a quicker and more transparent process.

“The last six years have seen costs practice undergoing very substantial change, but I am encouraged that the majority of our members’ businesses are holding up well. It is clear that, with so many other things on their plates, solicitors are turning to our experts to handle their costs issues and the bond between these two professions remains as strong as ever.”

 

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Costs News
Published date
17 Jan 2019

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