The lord chancellor has pledged to conduct a meaningful consultation on how legal aid bills are assessed after the Law Society decided to take legal action.
The Society lodged judicial review proceedings in September, alleging that the Legal Aid Agency failed to consult properly around the decision to remove assessment of legal aid claims between £2,500 and £25,000 out of the hands of the courts and bring them in-house.
Today, Chancery Lane revealed that Robert Buckland QC will give solicitors the right to have their bills assessed either by the agency or specialist judges while the LAA consults with the profession on the most appropriate way for legal aid costs to be assessed in future.
David Greene, president, said: ‘We brought this action because the LAA announced changes to the way legal aid costs were assessed without a credible consultation or evidence to support moving cost assessments from the courts into the LAA.
‘Our concern was that the LAA may not have the expertise to assess complex costs – historically it has only assessed very low or pre-agreed legal aid bills – whereas cost judges routinely assess the reasonableness of solicitors’ claims for work on complex cases. Equally concerning, the LAA has a stake in the outcome of costs assessments – as payments come from its budget – and so it will not always be the appropriate arbiter, whereas a costs judge is in a position to make an impartial, expert assessment.’
The LAA unveiled plans to bring court-assessed bills in-house last June, saying at the time that many providers had not been paid for cases because of court closures during lockdown. It conducted a two-week ‘operational’ consultation on what would have been a permanent change.
The High Court has formally endorsed a settlement of the Society’s claim. Under the terms, the lord chancellor will shortly announce a fresh consultation on whether civil bills should be assessed in-house by the LAA in future rather than by specialist cost judges and associated arrangements.
Greene said: ‘The Law Society is grateful to Association of Costs Lawyers and the Legal Aid Practitioners’ Group for providing valuable insight into the views of their members on the decision to transfer the assessment of all civil legal aid bills to the LAA.’
The Society was represented by in-house legal advisers working with solicitors at Bindmans and David Wolfe QC.