The backlog for costs management conferences (CMCs) has reached such levels that they are already being listed for next summer, the Gazette has learned.
Practitioners say they are waiting up to 10 months for conferences to be heard and face inconsistency from judges.
Last week, senior costs judge Master Gordon-Saker called for more training to equip judges inexperienced in costs, saying budgeting was ‘completely alien’ to some.
Costs experts have now reported massive delays in the system and warned that some lawyers may seek to exploit the backlog.
‘I have huge sympathy for judges but something needs to be done,’ said Tom Blackburn, manager of cost specialist Compass Law. ‘We have CMCs listed for May or June. By the time that comes around the budget is out of date.’
Blackburn said some lawyers are producing inflated or low-balled budgets hoping that hard-pressed judges will nod them through. Others are also incurring as much time and cost as possible before the CMC, as judges are precluded from making any ruling on costs already incurred.
He added that in some courts the costs lawyer has been shut out of hearings, ‘leaving barristers arguing over costs in front of an ex-barrister who has never run a case and knows nothing about costs’.
Sue Nash, chair of the Association of Costs Lawyers, said members had reported delays to provisional assessments: ‘Not only does there appear to be an inconsistency of communication coming from the Senior Courts Costs Office in acknowledging assessments lodged – with some matters being acknowledged and others ignored – we’ve had reports of waiting times for provisional assessment range from three months to 10 months.’
Tony Guise, chairman of the Commercial Litigation Association, said the backlog of CMCs is partly caused by conferences lasting up to three hours as some judges pore over every detail.
‘Increasing numbers of my association’s members complain that district judges approach costs budgets as if they were embarking upon a detailed assessment.’
Guise said the association has agreed to work with Gordon-Saker, with roadshows across the country to help practitioners and judges understand costs better.
Blackburn suggested that budgets should be dealt with four weeks after the CMC and masters currently in the Senior Courts Costs Office be allowed to sit as assessors in cases with budgets above £500,000.