Back to the rumour mill

Posted by Neil Rose, Editor, Litigation Futures

The final countdown: when will the portal fee be announced and will it blow the market apart?

Events like the Motor Accident Solicitors Society (MASS) annual conference in Manchester last Friday are great for people like me. Aside from the interesting debates on stage, they offer the chance to catch up with those most likely to be in the know, as well as hear the latest gossip and rumours circulating during the tea breaks and the pre-conference receptions (thank you, Compass Costs and Premex).

Of course, the April reforms dominated discussion. The best-sourced rumour I heard – confirmed by people whom I trust to have their information first-hand – is that the government is to make a significant policy shift on the interaction between qualified one-way costs-shifting (QOCS) and part 36.

In July the Ministry of Justice said that part 36 will trump QOCS, but only up to the level of damages recovered by the claimant. Word now is that the level is to be increased to take in the recovered costs as well, to the horror of claimant lawyers and quiet delight of after-the-event insurers, as this will only increase the risk that needs insuring.

Separately on QOCS, Charlie Cory-Wright QC, chairman of the Personal Injuries Bar Association, told a HP2-T21 session at the annual Bar conference on Saturday that it was rumoured that where a successful claimant has lost along the way – such as at an interlocutory stage or on a particular issue – they would have costs enforced against them in the traditional way, up to the limit of the damages, costs and interest. “That’s not one-way costs shifting,” he said. “That’s two-way cost shifting with a cap.”

Back to MASS. The referral fee ban was a big topic of conversation. One solicitor I met on Thursday said that in one evening she had heard seven different ways of addressing it (which was four more than she HP2-T28 had worked out herself). Agency instructions and work-in-progress sales are among the options being discussed, it would seem, while there is apparently nothing in the legislation to stop a claims management company with a client in their office (so this will only work for the local operators) pointing them to a telephone and getting them to call the panel law firm and pass on their details.

But all anyone really wanted to know is the new portal fee. It’s always a delicate matter when publishing rumours, and I felt far more secure about the QOCS news above, which seemed well known among movers and shakers. The portal fee, by contrast, remains shrouded in secrecy and some people whom I would expect to know something, if there was something to know, insisted that they were as clueless as everyone else.

Taking all that into account, the figure I started to hear on Friday was that where £600 was previously being bandied around, £800 has emerged more recently. Remember that it is in some insurers’ interests to have a higher fee that they will be able to share in some sort of post-referral fee ban ABS arrangement. But don't adjust your business plan quite yet. By next week the rumour may have taken it to £400. Or £900. It just shows how much the government needs to get on and put everyone out of their misery by announcing the figure.

So we are set for a significant official announcement in the middle of next month. Or rather, that’s the rumour.