Costs budgeting by Matthew Harman

I spend a good deal of time dealing with budget hearings in the Queen’s Bench Division corridor.  From my perspective they waste an awful lot of time being listed at times like 11:30am, which leads to a complete morning and early afternoon out of the office.  However, my slight inconvenience is of nothing compared to the desperation that must be felt by the Masters.  I actually feel slightly sorry for them – there, I have said it.

They signed up for something completely different and have found themselves, with little training, being thrown into the fascinating and magical world of costs, having to cope with these strange costs lawyer types who were previously restricted to the nether regions of the Thomas More Building.

It is fair to say that our appearance on the QBD corridor has not met with universal approval, although I don’t know why that should be as I suggest that we know a great deal more about costs issues than most advocates.

The decision to suspend costs budgeting was the inevitable outcome of ill thought out changes in procedure.  It really was pretty obvious that, if you increase the time of a case management conference to include dealing with a costs budget and increase the time estimate from 30 to 90 minutes, it will not be long before the wait for hearing extends over the horizon.

Further, previously directions could often be agreed – obviating the need for a hearing. That has been rare to date on budget hearings. The best one can expect generally is to agree some of the more straightforward phases ahead of time.

The problem with the suspension is that it will not fix things. It will allow the Masters to catch up for now, but unless something is done the same situation will arise and a further suspension will be required. Dykes and fingers come to mind.

An unexpected consequence of the suspension has been three months’ worth of old-fashioned estimates being ordered in 14 days, causing mayhem in our offices and, no doubt, in many others.

I am a fan of budgets as a concept and think that they can be made to work. There is no question that they are being dealt with more quickly and, dare I say it, Masters are becoming more comfortable with the process.

What does concern me is that there will be some around the country who will adopt a tariff approach to budgets as in ‘I always allow x for this phase in this type of action.’  I am already starting to see evidence of this and do find myself when preparing budgets thinking things like, ‘Master so and so usually allows X hours per day for attending trial’ and preparing the budget accordingly.

Matthew Harman, Partner and Costs Lawyer