The Law Society has lodged a judicial review against the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) for not fairly consulting the profession before deciding to move legal aid cost assessments in-house.
The LAA announced in June it was to move all cost assessments in-house on the basis that it would speed up processing of bills and help firms’ cashflow during the pandemic.
Under the move, from 17 August 2020 all civil court assessed claims will be handled by the LAA civil finance team instead of the courts.
However, the Society is concerned that the representative bodies were not consulted before the decision to permanently transfer costs assessments exceeding £2,500 to the LAA.
The Society’s president Simon Davies said: “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.”
“It is only right”, he added, “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.”
He pointed out that though some practitioner groups were consulted, “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”.
He 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.”
Calculating cost assessments can be a complicated process, he added, requiring a level of skill and experience as well as sufficient time, which is why larger cost assessments were transferred to the courts by the Legal Services Commission.
The Society said 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.
A “significant conflict of interests” could be created in the case of larger bills, it warned, because the assessor will be “also the paying party”.
Furthermore, the Society said: “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.”...