The Association of Costs Lawyers (ACL) have raised issue with the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) lacking the independence and capacity to take over the assessment of civil legal aid bills. A major concern is a reduction of Legal Aid services available to vulnerable parties if ‘solicitors fail to cover their costs of providing legal aid services at properly remunerated rates’.
The key points in the ACL’s response were;
1. Consultation process
2. Conflict of interest/lack of neutrality
3. Lack of substantive response
4. Capacity of the LAA
5. Lack of Experience of the case workers
Currently, the LAA assess all bill under the value of £2,000, the MoJ have proposed an increase so the LAA would assess all bills without an inter partes element worth between £2,000 and £25,000 which were previously assessed by the court.
The ACL have not only questioned the independence and capacity of the LAA to assess these costs but also the consultation itself raising specific concern with the fact that the Consultation culminated in just one question; “do you agreed with the conclusions reached by the LAA and MOJ”.
The consultation falls below the government’s own consultation guidelines in several respects, the ACL noted there was no alternative proposed at the consultation, no formal cost-benefit analysis and it did not go into any detail about how much extra work this would cost the LAA. The Consultation thereby failed to raise questions as to whether there were any concerns with the proposals or prompt any alternative considerations, arguably this was a retrospective consultation.
The LAA assessors are legally unqualified so there is natural concern over the outcomes of assessments and what costs would be allowed. With no legal experience, it would be difficult to understand the complex legal processes or the practical application of the work done to assess its reasonableness.
“The knowledge and experience required in assessing costs and determining what is reasonable and proportionate, is an extremely high bar to meet and the ACL seek clarification as to what legal training and or experience the LAA caseworkers will be provided with to enable them to meet the required level of expertise.”
The outcome – whilst continued support remains for adopting the ‘hybrid approach’ to LAA assessments, where solicitors can elect either Court or LAA to undertake assessments on those costs between £2000-£25000, the ACL have raised strong issues in relation to the LAA’s Consultation.