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“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,” said Law Society of England and Wales president Simon Davis. “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. In June, the LAA announced they would be moving all cost assessments in-house – which they claimed would allow them to process bills more quickly and help with legal aid firms’ cash flow issues during the Covid-19 pandemic. They also launched a consultation with a limited number of practitioner groups. However, the LAA did not consult on the decision to transfer the cost assessments in-house, just on which changes were needed to transfer the assessments over from the courts.”
The Law Society raised several key concerns:
the decision to transfer costs assessments exceeding £2,500 to the LAA on a permanent basis was taken without any consultation with the representative bodies
the LAA might not have enough qualified staff and resources to handle moving all cost assessments in-house – which could create issues with processing bills and delays in legal aid firms receiving payments
LAA assessments of larger bills create a significant conflict of interests as the assessor is also the paying party
the costs appeals process is not a properly independent as it is controlled by the LAA which also appoints and remunerates the Independent Costs Assessors
Simon Davis added: “In spite of these concerns about moving cost assessments in-house, the LAA has pressed ahead with this decision – without fairly consulting the profession.
“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.”