New Practice Note: Remote Hearings in the Senior Courts Costs Office

We specialise in detailed assessments where clients are disputing the charges of their former solicitors. If you instruct us we will vigorously fight your case and get a reduction of your bill, which we will consider doing for you on a no win no fee basis. We act for both clients and for the solicitors. Our London lawyers are based just minutes from the Senior Courts Costs Office and can be deployed with speed as the client’s needs and case demands.

Master Gordon-Saker, the Senior Costs Judge, has published a Practice Note on 24 July 2020 relating to hearings and detailed assessments in the Senior Courts Costs Office (SCCO) from 1 August 2020. The Practice Note updates the guidance based on the SCCO’s experience during the coronavirus pandemic. The key point for costs lawyers is that the SCCO expect a greater use of remote hearings in appropriate cases.

If you have received a bill or bills from your solicitors and you think that the fees are higher than they should have been, then a specialist court exists to deal with such disputes with its own rules and guidance. Many law firms simply do not understand what is a niche area of legal practice. Unlike most law firms, we understand solicitor/client costs disputes.

What is Detailed Assessment?

If a statute bill has been delivered to a client and the client believes they have been overcharged then the client can commence detailed assessment proceedings or a request can be made to the Senior Courts Costs Office to make a detailed assessment of the bill. If upon assessment, the bill is determined to be unreasonable, the bill will be reduced. Our costs lawyers have extensive experience in assessment of bill proceedings before the SCCO.

Practice Note by the Senior Costs Judge

Introduction

1. As a result of the hard work and determination of the court staff and the willingness to adapt shown by most practitioners we have managed to hear almost all cases listed since March 2020. Very few hearings have been adjourned.

2. Based on our experience over the last few months we can now say how hearings will need to be conducted for the foreseeable future. This practice note applies only to hearings in the SCCO and applies from 1 August 2020.

Detailed assessment hearings

3. It is for the costs judge or costs officer to decide the format of the hearing.

Hearings will fall into one of 3 formats:

(1) Remote hearings with the judge and all parties appearing by telephone or video.
(2) Partly remote hearings with the judge and one or more parties in court and one or more parties appearing by telephone or video.
(3) Hearings with the judge and all parties in court.

4. The notice of hearing sent by the court to the parties will state the format of the hearing. Parties may apply in writing for a different format within 14 days of receipt of the notice of hearing. The court will make the arrangements for video hearings and invitations will be sent to the representatives nominated by the parties.

If the hearing is to be held by telephone, the receiving party should arrange the conference call in accordance with paragraph 6.10 of PD 23A, unless the court has directed otherwise.

Filing papers in support of the bill electronically

5. A party who wishes to lodge its papers in support of the bill electronically should discuss how it should do so with the clerk to the relevant costs judge or with the costs officer well in advance of the deadline for lodging the papers. There are 3
ways in which papers may be filed electronically:

a) Via CE File. The size limit on CE File is 50MB although parties can in one filing file up to 10 documents with each not exceeding 50MB: PD51O paragraph 5.2(2).

b) With the permission of the court, via the HMCTS document upload centre.

This enables the court staff to invite professional court users to upload documents required for hearings, which may be too large to be submitted via CE File. Documents uploaded are then accessible by the costs judge or costs
officer.

c) With the permission of the court, via a safe third party online file-sharing platform. (However, please note that Ministry of Justice rules prevent costs officers from accessing third party systems).

6. Documents filed electronically, whether by CE File or by the document upload centre, must comply with paragraph 10 of PD 51O and also with the guidance on PDF bundles published at: https://www.judiciary.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/GENERAL-GUIDANCE-ON-PDF-BUNDLES-f-1.pdf

They must be formatted as one PDF document with bookmarks as appropriate for each constituent document and must be the subject of optical character recognition.

They must be filed not less than 7 days before the start of the hearing, as required by PD 47 paragraph 13.11.

Filing papers in advance of detailed assessment hearings other than electronically

7. Experience has shown that hearings work much more efficiently where the receiving party has filed its papers electronically. Parties are encouraged therefore to file their papers in support of the bill electronically whether or not they have been working paperlessly. Where the receiving party’s solicitors have been working paperlessly, it is unlikely that the cost of printing their files will be recoverable.

8. If the receiving party files its papers in support of the bill other than
electronically:

a) The receiving party will nevertheless be expected to file an electronic bundle of key documents (that is, the documents relevant to the issues raised in the points of dispute, but not including the documents already filed by CE File) rather than “core bundles” or the like on paper. The bundle should comply with paragraph 10 of PD 51O and the guidance referred to at paragraph 6 above.

b) The papers must be physically received at the SCCO not less than 7 days before the start of the hearing (as required by PD 47 paragraph 13.11). If papers are filed late the hearing may be adjourned.

9. Parties should file electronically any documents to which they will wish to refer at a hearing, because handing up papers or files in hearings may not now be permitted. That will be a matter for the costs judge or costs officer conducting the hearing.

10. Skeleton arguments and the like must be filed electronically (by CE File or email) at least 2 days before the hearing. Statements of costs for summary assessment must be filed using CE File not less than 24 hours before the time fixed for the hearing.

Applications and criminal costs appeals

11. While applications and criminal costs appeals can be heard in court with the parties present, greater use will be made of remote hearings (by video or telephone) in appropriate cases. The application notice or notice of hearing will identify the format of the hearing.

12. PD 51O paragraph 10.1 requires the applicant to file by CE File an electronic bundle at least 3 days before the hearing in the format required by paragraph 10.3. Provisional assessments and Court of Protection bills

13. Between the parties bills under £75,000 will continue to be provisionally assessed, however the receiving party will not be required to file papers in support of the bill unless expressly requested by the court. The court may request all of the papers in support of the bill or only those relating to a particular issue or issues.

Where papers in support of the bill are requested, they should where possible be filed electronically.

14. The provisions relating to detailed assessment hearings (above) will apply to oral hearings of provisional assessments and appeals from costs officers.

15. On the provisional assessment of the bill of a deputy appointed by the Court of Protection, the deputy’s solicitor must still file the papers in support of the bill with the bill, but is encouraged to do so electronically via either CE File or the HMCTS document upload centre (see paragraphs 5 and 6 above).

Andrew Gordon-Saker
Senior Costs Judge
July 2020

Download the Practice Note by the Senior Costs Judge

What happens at the detailed assessment hearing?

The Court’s Costs Judge will determine what was a reasonable amount for the solicitor to have charged on their bill based on the challenges raised in the Points of Dispute and the Reply. The Costs Judge examines the bill in detail and in particular, examines how reasonable the costs are to the case’s issues judged on an indemnity basis.

Once the SCCO has decided the amount of the bill payable, usually payment must be made within 14 days or the solicitor will be required to return funds to the client together with any accrued interest.

Can I get my legal costs of the solicitor/client proceedings?

Ordinarily, in litigation the CPR provides that the unsuccessful party pays the costs of the successful party. However, in legal costs assessment proceedings, a crucial factor is the amount by which the solicitors’ invoice is reduced by on assessment. According to the Solicitors’ Act 1974:

“the costs of an assessment shall be paid according to the event of the assessment, that is to say, if the amount of the bill is reduced by one fifth, the solicitor shall pay the costs, but otherwise the party chargeable shall pay the costs.”

(s.70(9) Solicitors Act 1974)

Therefore, if the client reduces the solicitors’ bill by one fifth (20%) or more, then the client is entitled to the costs of the statutory detailed assessment proceedings.

We represent you at Detailed Assessment Hearings

We are based in the legal heart of London as the only law firm in the historic Middle Temple Chambers we provide comprehensive nationwide coverage to represent you at any detailed assessment hearing. Unlike most law firms, we are a mutli-disciplinary firm of solicitors and barristers with full rights of audience in England and Wales.

We are based just minutes from the Senior Courts Costs Office in the Royal Courts of Justice where all detailed assessment hearings proceed. We regularly represent clients at the Senior Courts Costs Office.

Not based in London? We provide nationwide representation

That does not matter, we will represent you no matter where you are based in England or Wales.

If you contact us through our contact form, by email or by phone, one of our legal costs team members will contact you by phone to discuss your matter and assess whether we can help you.

No win No fee for solicitor and own client costs disputes

We specialise in costs disputes at the Senior Courts Costs Office (SCCO) proceeding under the Solicitors Act 1974. That is why we can offer a no win no fee agreement to clients once we have had sight of the relevant papers (and ideally a detailed bill of costs). This means you do not have to pay us anything should your solicitor’s bill not be reduced.

We will advise you on the merits of reducing your solicitor’s invoice. Discuss the merits of early protective without prejudice settlement offers. We draft Points of Dispute (for clients) and Points of Reply (for solicitors). We will Represent you at any directions hearing, preliminary issues hearing and the detailed assessment hearing before the SCCO.

City of London Specialist Legal Costs Lawyers

Our SCCO Legal Costs Dispute Lawyers are experienced in checking and disputing legal fees. We are experts in assessing whether the time claimed for is reasonable and whether your solicitor may have overcharged. We are well versed in both negotiating a reduction with your solicitor and attending detailed assessment proceedings at court if necessary. Our team have an in-depth knowledge of litigation against the client or solicitor under the Solicitors Act 1974.

As a leading high-profile law firm regularly featured in the national and international media and with a track record of success, you can be assured your Legal Costs claim will proceed with precision and care.

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