New body to decide on correct level of legal bills
TRANSPARENCY and downward pressure on costs – these are the ultimate goals of a system being introduced to decide the appropriate level of legal costs arising from High Court cases where the size of a bill is in dispute.
Under changes to be introduced by the Legal Services Regulatory Authority (LSRA), the current Taxing Masters Office is to be replaced by an Office of Legal Costs Adjudicators.
Although the current office has consistently slashed bills and hearings are open to the public, very few of its determinations are published.
Earlier this year, the Irish Independent sought access to a more extensive number of determinations in a bid to see if there were any particular trends, only to be told this was not possible. However, statistics on the number of cases dealt with and the amount of costs disallowed were made available.
The drawbacks of the office were noted as far back as 2005 when a report by a legal costs working group set up by then-justice minister Michael McDowell advocated its replacement.
Of particular concern was the lack of a public register of decisions and the key factors that led to those decisions.
This created a significant information deficit, limiting the awareness of the public and the legal professions of the likely levels at which costs will be decided in different categories of proceedings.
While there is always some unpredictability surrounding legal costs in a case, the absence of such data only compounded the difficulty in making predictions.
Lack of transparency was also criticised in a 2011 report by the Dáil Public Accounts Committee.
Under the Legal Service Regulation Act, a chief legal costs adjudicator will have to ensure a register of decisions is available for public inspection and published on the website of the Courts Service. It will have to contain information including the identities of parties involved in the adjudication, the set of proceedings it relates to, the decision of the legal costs adjudicator, and, subject to a small number of exceptions, the reasons for the decision.
The chief legal costs adjudicator will also have the power to issue guidelines to legal practitioners and the public.