In the Keynote Address at the Law Society’s Civil Litigation Conference, Lord Justice Jackson has addressed the controversy around on reforms to bills of costs. He said that the current bill format is not ‘helpful or appropriate’ for the modern legal system, and requires reform it can be ‘relatively easy for a receiving party to disguise or even hide what has gone on’. As part of his Address, Jackson LJ also set out the new format of bills which would be in place for all work from October 2017.
A new bill of costs was created in 2015 by the Hutton Committee which included auto-generated electronic time records along with incorporated standardised J-codes, used to categorise work. Following consultation, the bill came in for criticism over claims it was:
- too expensive to implement
- too complex to work with
- too time-consuming to transfer work done before J-codes into the new format, and
- the bill is too prescriptive in using J-codes
A pilot of the revised scheme was launched in October 2015 and was due to end this month, but following a December 2015 decision by the Civil Procedure Rule Committee (CPRC) it will now run until December 2016.
While Jackson LJ praised the caution shown by the CPRC in accepting the new format, he addressed the concerns raised, saying that the changes would not require the introduction of ‘expensive time-recording software’. Instead he said that for those who had already invested in software (and for those looking to invest), with a ‘relatively small amount of changes and cost’ the software could be made compatible with J-codes. He said that while criticism of cost was more understandable for those who do not currently work with time-recording software at all, but that it is not a reason to resist electronic working. ‘Lawyers need to accept changes to their practices as technology makes it possible to work more efficiently’ he added.
Jackson LJ also said that while the use of a spreadsheet to record billing could appear complex on the surface, in reality it was not and that while those responsible for preparing bills will be required to become familiar with Microsoft Excel ‘they need not become experts’. He said: ‘It should be kept in mind that this is only one way of generating the new bill and it has been designed to cope with a wide range of scenarios. Not all of its columns and cells will be used. Furthermore, if there is demand the members of the LSSA will produce new versions of it or create user-friendly interfaces based upon it. Solicitors should feel free to adapt it or create versions of their own.’
He added that the majority of the criticism had been levelled at the introduction of J-codes meaning ‘the entire bill has been criticised rather than one discrete part of it’.
To resolve the situation, Jackson LJ proposed 1 October 2017 be used as the date for making the new form bill of costs mandatory, and extending the voluntary pilot until that date. He said in doing so there would be ‘no retrospective imposition and no need to go through historic information, trying to apply the phase/task/activity format retrospectively’. In addition to take the scheme forward he also suggested creating a version of the print bill and spreadsheet which removes references to the J-Codes.
He concluded: ‘This is not intended as a criticism of the CPRC’s decision last December. The consultation responses rightly gave them pause for thought. However, the obstacles are not insurmountable. The Hutton Committee has designed a new bill that is fit for purpose. With the appropriate rule changes and practical steps in the implementation process, the concerns can be addressed.’