The Law Society has lodged judicial review proceedings against the Legal Aid Agency (LAA), alleging it failed to consult properly around a decision to remove legal aid cost assessments out of the hands of the courts.
In June, the LAA announced that it would be moving cost assessments in-house in order to process bills more quickly and help with legal aid firms’ cash flow issues during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Courts would usually conduct an assessment where, in civil proceedings concluded in front of a district judge or higher, the costs incurred were over £2,500.
According to the Law Society, the LAA did not properly consult on the decision to transfer the cost assessments in-house. Instead, a limited number of practioner groups were consulted on which changes were needed to transfer the assessments over from the courts.
Society president Simon Davis said: ‘Cost assessments are vital in ensuring that when legal aid practitioners send a bill it is carefully scrutinised and they are properly paid for their work.
‘For years, legal aid cost assessments over the value of £2,500 have been conducted by the courts and bills under £2,500 have been assessed by the LAA – a system which has worked well for practitioners and clients alike.
‘Calculating cost assessments can be a complicated process which requires a level of skill and experience, and sufficient time. The LAA’s predecessor – the Legal Services Commission – transferred larger cost assessments to the courts for this reason.’
The Society said it is concerned a decision has been taken on a permanent basis without any consultation with the representative bodies, and that the agency might not have enough qualified staff and resources to handle the change.
It added that LAA assessments of larger bills create a conflict of interests as the assessor is also the paying party, and the costs appeals process is not properly independent as it is controlled by the LAA which also appoints and remunerates the independent costs assessors.
Davis added: ‘We have issued proceedings on a protective basis. We invite the LAA to talk to us and engage in a full and proper discussion so that we don’t have to carry on with the proceedings.
‘It is only right that the profession is fully and fairly consulted in how their bills will be assessed – which will have a significant impact on their business at a time when many firms are already financially stretched.’