Iain Stark, chairman of the Association of Costs Lawyers, comments on the findings of this year’s member survey. What does it tell us about the state of the costs management regime in 2016?
Every year, the Association of Costs Lawyers (ACL) undertakes a survey of members. This year, given a range of answers to the question of how the costs management regime was working, the largest number opted for: ‘It depends on which judge you’re before.’
Costs management is now in its third year, and has at times shown its value; however, judicial inconsistency and some solicitors continuing not to pay heed to the rules – particularly around updating budgets – mean it has not yet achieved what it was supposed to.
The reality is that some judges, understandably when faced with full lists and no higher guidance to draw on, remain unenthusiastic about budgeting. But it must be in the interest of the wider legal profession to make costs management work when faced with the uncertainty of change and other proposed reforms.
For costs lawyers, frankly, budgeting has been good news. Respondents to our survey recognised that it has brought their skills to the fore, especially as their experience is that, while solicitors may think they can handle budgeting, actually few have the skills to do so. It only takes one expensive mistake to start rethinking your approach.
Another significant issue facing those working in costs is the new format bill of costs and the adoption of recording time by phase, task and activity. While the ACL sees the value of this initiative, it is fair to record that views are mixed among members.
But, at this stage, the success of the bill of costs is dependent on solicitors embracing change – a third of respondents agreed that however good it was, ‘solicitors aren’t interested’. Further, they said the courts would also have to take a hard line to make it work.
While these issues remain live, the day-to-day work of costs goes on and the survey showed that, for most, the current environment was a good one, with 64 per cent either maintaining or increasing work levels from the previous year. Notably, 11 per cent of costs lawyers said they had taken on more advocacy.
Costs remains a busy place to work, but there is a lot to do to ensure it works well and in the interests of clients and lawyers alike. We see costs lawyers as playing a pivotal role in costs management and in making the new bill of costs a success, and I intend to make sure the ACL is front and centre of the debates on their future.
Iain Stark is the Chairman of the Association of Costs Lawyers.