The Civil Procedure Rule Committee has decided to delay compulsory introduction of the new electronic bill of costs, it has emerged.
It was due to start in the Senior Courts Costs Office (SCCO) in October 2017, but a spokeswoman for the committee told Litigation Futures that it has been deferred “to ensure that all courts are ready to accept electronic bills of costs”.
She said the aim was to implement it in April 2018 but this was subject to the parliamentary timetable.
A paper before this month’s meeting of the rule committee, authored by Mr Justice Birss, said that while the Courts Service and Ministry of Justice were “very supportive of the project”, there remained a concern “that implementing the new bill on a mandatory basis from 1 October 2017 in all the county courts across the country represents practical risks.
“Our view is that the best option is bring in the amendments to the rules and PDs as planned, but with the date on which the new bill is mandatory pushed back to 6 April 2018.
“The April date would apply everywhere, i.e. in both the SCCO and the county courts. Note that the SCCO handles detailed assessments for Central London County Court.”
Birss J said bringing in the bill on a mandatory basis on different dates in different courts “creates complexity and a real risk of confusion for court users. So that option is undesirable”.
Further, various IT improvements are being rolled out in the county courts in the next year in any case “and therefore delaying mandatory implementation by a few months means that by the time the bill must be used, the availability of dual screens, wifi and laptops in the county courts will have improved substantially.”
The extra time would allow for testing/training of court staff and judges using the example electronic bills in the interim period.
“The proposal would make the new bill available as an option from the date the changes come into force (presumably 1 October) and so it may be that in the interim period the SCCO will have some new bills in the meantime.
“There may even be a few bills in the county court too, although our expectation based on the experience of the voluntary pilot is that users do not use this new bill unless it is mandatory.”
Francis Kendall, vice-chairman of the Association of Costs Lawyers, said: “The profession will welcome more time to get to grips with the electronic bill. This delay provides an opportunity both to iron out any remaining glitches and to make the bill more advanced and user friendly.
“Also, rolling it out in all courts – rather than having a twin-track approach – would be eminently sensible. It is good to see that pragmatic and sensible decisions are being made regardless of any pressure for change.
“My concern, however, is that some solicitors will just use the delay to avoid addressing this new approach to billing at all. The fact is that an electronic bill of costs is coming sooner or later and lawyers need to be ready.”
There was virtually no take-up of the original electronic bill, Precedent AA, after a voluntary pilot began in the SCCO in October 2015 following work done by the Hutton committee. In October 2016, the rule committee made amendments to the bill being used in the pilot, issuing Precedent AB, and allowing users to create their own versions so long as they include certain levels of information.
But since last year the SCCO has not dealt with a single electronic bill (although three have been filed).