VICTORIA HAS laid down the groundwork for the first dedicated Costs Court in Australia, a move that legislators hope will reduce the burden on the lower courts and improve the efficiency of costs rulings.
Amendments to the Legal Profession Act 2004 propose to expand the membership of the Legal Costs Committee (LCC) to include nominees of the Chief Justice of the County Court, and Chief Magistrate and the President of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).
The bill also moves to expand the statutory scope of the LCC to include an advisory function regarding inter-jurisdiction issues affecting the resolution of costs disputes.
Both Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls and President of the Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) Tony Burke have put their weight behind the proposed Costs Court, believed to be the first of its kind in Australia.
“The formation of this new Costs Court to handle costs disputes between legal practitioners and clients will promote greater consistency across the jurisdictions and is part of the larger aim of the Brumby Government to streamline case management and improve the efficiency of our courts,” Hulls said.
The LIV has taken credit for the initiative, which was recommended to the Attorney-General’s department by former LIV president Bill O’Shea several years ago.
“We are delighted that it has now come to fruition and we obviously take some credit for the initiative in the first place and we think this is a first for Australia,” commented current President Tony Burke.
“The benefits, as we see it, are that we will now have some degree of specialisation. We think that over time there will develop a body of specialist expertise in the Costs Court that will free up judges and other court officials to do what they are best qualified to do, which is preside over cases rather than to trawl through the minutia of cost disputes.”
In relation to costs complaints against solicitors, the new costs court will have jurisdiction to deal with cost disputes between solicitors and clients that exceed the set statutory limit.
Burke was keen to emphasise that client lawyer disputes are not the sole target of the revised legislation.
“This is not just about complaints against lawyers — this is also in relation to disputes between litigating parties. If you are involved in a civil claim and you receive an award of costs, if the parties can’t agree on the measure of those costs then it will have to be determined by a court.”
The changes flow on from other recent initiatives to modernise the Victorian Courts, including the renaming of Masters as “Associate Judges”. The legislation drafted follows recommendations made by Crown Counsel Dr John Lynch following his review of the Office of Master/Costs Office.
The Bill was introduced into Victorian Parliament on 19 August. It provides for the Costs Court to sit as part of the Trial Division of the Supreme Court.