Video and phone hearings are set to become a permanent feature of the Senior Courts Costs Office (SCCO) even after the coronavirus pandemic has passed, the Senior Costs Judge has said.
Andrew Gordon-Saker made the remarks as he published a practice note on hearings and detailed assessments, which emphasised the SCCO’s preference for papers to be filed electronically.
The practice note, available on the Association of Costs Lawyers’ (ACL) website, said hearings would continue as remote, part-remote and in-person, depending on the view of the costs judge or officer.
In an accompanying message to the ACL, he said: “As the requirements for social distancing ease, the balance will tip away from remote hearings towards more in-person hearings. But even when all social distancing requirements have gone, I anticipate that we will nevertheless make greater use of video and phone than we did before the lockdown, in particular for short hearings.”
His comments reflect the findings of the Civil Justice Council’s review of how the courts have coped with Covid-19, which said “the majority of costs disputes were also felt to be suitable for remote determination”.
The work of SCCO staff, support of practitioners and “timely arrival of electronic filing” meant that very few SCCO hearings have been adjourned, Master Gordon-Saker said.
He acknowledged that there have been administrative delays in individual cases and that there was currently a delay with Court of Protection bills – however, the decision of the government to switch the assessment of legal aid bills from the SCCO to the Legal Aid Agency from next month meant “we should be able to devote more resources to Court of Protection work”.
Master Gordon-Saker said there had been an increase in work coming into the SCCO during the lockdown “and the indications are that litigation will pick up very quickly.
He added: “We are also getting on with other things. Work has resumed on guideline hourly rates for next year and also on the electronic bill for the Court of Protection.”
The judge said lockdown has accelerated changes which were coming anyway. “In particular, we are much more adept at using video and we now have better tools for receiving and manipulating electronic bundles.”
The practice note said hearings worked “much more efficiently where the receiving party has filed its papers electronically”.
In his message, the judge said: “The days of everybody sitting in court waiting for the receiving party’s representative to find the elusive attendance note of a particular conference in an unknown file in one of dozens of boxes really should have become a thing of the past a long time ago.”
The change will reduce the existing structure of three sources of rules – the actual rules, the practice direction and lengthy guidance note – into two documents: a set of rules and a practice direction which is intended only to include practice guidance.
Aside from budget revision, however, the rejig is not intended to make any substantive changes.
Budget revision will need to be done “promptly” in the event of significant developments in the litigation – initially the rule said it would need to be done “without delay”.