The majority of cost lawyers still report that solicitors fail to keep within their costs constraints – although there are tenative signs of improvement.
A survey of members of the Association of Costs Lawyers (ACL) found 23% who said solicitors always went over budget and 53% who reported that this sometimes happened.
Both proportions are lower than when the same questions were asked of costs specialists a year ago. One in 10 respondents said solicitors have got better at sticking to budgets, compared with 5% who reported this 12 months ago.
The figures indicate that solicitors are starting to get to grips with the costs budgeting regime, after changes to civil justice rules enforced that parties present their costs at the outset of a case.
ACL chairman Iain Stark 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.’
Only this week the courts have shown their willingness to intervene over cost budgets, with the High Court capping the costs that an appellant could claim from their Supreme Court appeal.
But the looming shadow of a wider capped costs regime suggests policy-makers are still not convinced lawyers have taken heed of cost budgeting rules. This month a two-year pilot began which caps costs in selected business and property courts. Discussions continue over whether to implement capped costs in areas such as clinical negligence.
The ACL poll, which surveyed 146 costs lawyers, also explored opinions on the electronic bill of costs which came into force last April.
Almost half said solicitors had not been ready for the change, while 43% said their clients were prepared. Just 6% of costs lawyers reported that solicitors had transitioned easily to the new regime, 42% said solicitors had asked their costs lawyers to sort it all out, and 23% said their solicitors were just putting off dealing with it.
Stark added: ‘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.’