“Much better left alone,’ chimed in old Jack Linden sagely, ‘argyfying about politics generally ends up with a bloody row an’ does no good to nobody.”
July has arrived again, with the hours of light stretching out in long summer evenings and the dawn seeming to arrive with indecent haste. By contrast the leadership election for the Conservative party seems to drag on and on, with the candidates popping up sporadically in the press, on TV and even in person to their electorate around the country.
Despite the current interregnum, the business of government continues regardless. Last month saw the closure of the consultation on fixed costs and the track changes, to be introduced in all probability in 2020, perhaps lightly amended as a sop to those who did take the trouble to reply to the consultation.
It is also the sixth anniversary of the implementation of the last round of fixed costs in an expanded part 45 CPR. Since July 2013, the cost of doing business has risen remorselessly, as train fares increase, professional indemnity insurance goes up, staff costs go up and yet the fixed costs figures remain true to their nature: frozen in amber as at July 2013.
One can go even further back, and note that the guideline hourly rates have not changed since 2010. And that the abortive attempt to revise the rates, was now as long ago as 2014. It is a matter of some surprise that they continue to be mentioned at all: for what resemblance do they bear now to the cost of practising law, in 2019?
This week I asked a Master of the SCCO and a District Judge in the County Court, to take account of inflation when taking the guideline hourly rates (guidelines, not tramlines etc) into account when using the rates as a cross check. In essence, the hourly rates had they been uplifted for inflation, would have been increased by just over 20% in the intervening years. They each declined to do so.
At some point, perhaps when the tenth anniversary is reached, it is interesting to speculate that an appeal will be brought on the failure to take into account the antiquity of the guideline hourly rates, or perhaps the fact that they are taken into account at all or given real weight, when they are so clearly of such antiquity that they could be said to be historical in significance.
In the meantime, I would suggest that what is needed as part of the latest round of fixed costs reforms, which will take in a huge slice of civil litigation, is a mechanism by which both the levels of fixed costs and hourly rates can be subject to periodic review.
An interesting point, which bears further consideration, is whether the effect of such reviews might be to reduce hourly rates: because with the ongoing march of technology and streamlining of working practices, it is by no means certain such reviews would only be upward.
It was this factor, which I suspect underlaid the refusal of the profession to engage with the 2014 review.
In the meantime, the guideline hourly rates will continue to be brandished on assessments, for want of alternative options.