Costs lawyers have weathered the Covid-19 well, with more than a third of those responding to a survey reporting that they are busier than ever, but some finding that solicitors are paying bills more slowly.
The annual survey carried out by the Association of Costs Lawyers (ACL) also found that the profession is becoming increasingly comfortable with the electronic bill of costs.
Some 126 costs lawyers – approximately a fifth of the profession – completed the survey, and 37% said they were busier than ever since the pandemic struck, while for 38% it had not made much difference to their practice.
However, 15% said work had dropped off, although only one respondent said they had lost their job as a result and three said they were having to consider making redundancies.
One in six (17%) noted that solicitors were paying their bills more slowly.
While 22% of respondents worked from home anyway – costs have always been an area of practice that has accommodated home working, the ACL said – a further 29% said working from home has become permanent for them. The survey found that 18% reported problems supervising colleagues at home.
Views were split on remote hearings – 39% thought it would be hard to go back to all in-person hearings once working life returned to normal, but 48% found that, despite the courts’ hard work to make them work, it was not easy to conduct hearings online. Four in ten (41%) noted how opposing parties have co-operated well to make remote hearings work.
Covid has accelerated the move to electronic ways of working, including the electronic bill of costs, and 37% of costs lawyers found the bill a positive development, although the same number were using it but said it had made no improvement. However, the costs of detailed assessment have increased as a result of the electronic bill, according to 70% of respondents, as judges and lawyers get used to working through it in court.
The way solicitors record time – vital to making the electronic bill work – was still a problem for a significant proportion (37%) of costs lawyers.
The ACL has welcomed the ongoing review of the guideline hourly rates and most costs lawyers expected it to lead to an increase – 22% predicted a substantial uplift, 45% a slight one – although 28% were worried that, as happened in 2015, the Master of the Rolls would not have sufficient evidence on which to base a decision and so would not change them.
There have been calls for parties to embrace ADR to resolve costs disputes, but only 6% said Covid has encouraged parties to go down that road and more widely only 13% of costs lawyers said they had seen more interest from clients in ADR.
ACL chair Claire Green says: “The vital role of costs lawyers in ensuring that solicitors are properly paid for the work they do has come to the fore during the pandemic – there has never been a more important time for firms to realise the value of their efforts.
“Covid has, of course, been difficult for everyone but it has had the positive side effect of encouraging greater digitisation, whether in time recording and preparing bundles for hearings, as well as embedding the electronic bill yet further.
“The Senior Costs Judge has made clear that he expects remote hearings to remain part of the Senior Courts Costs Office’s work even after life returns to normal, especially for short hearings.
“What costs lawyers have proven over recent months is that they are adaptable, increasingly tech-savvy and able to step up when their clients need them.
“I am grateful to the many costs lawyers who took part – the survey allows us as a council to understand where future issues for members may lie.”