This blog forms part of a series of weekly interviews with several professionals during lockdown. It aims to inform Deputies and their teams about how each organisation within the field of Court of Protection has adapted to Covid-19. Our second participant for Lockdown Lowdown is Master Peter Haworth from the Senior Courts Costs Office.
- How has the SCCO adapted to lockdown?
I originally thought we wouldn’t cope very well at all, and thought we would lock up shop at the SCCO, but that hasn’t happened. It’s not just skeleton staff, but staff working from home and a team in the office on a very detailed rota. We have a dedicated COP team of at least 5 people in today and 6 people in tomorrow, so we are finding ways to continue whilst respecting social distancing. We have managed to obtain laptops which have been given to Costs Officers so, in addition to the team in the office, Costs Officers are dealing with work at home. We have 8 Costs Officers and all 8 of them are working, be it remotely or from the office and the people in the high risk category are having work delivered to them as opposed to collecting it themselves. The team really have worked hard to adapt and I’m tremendously proud of them. The judiciary are also getting on surprisingly well in lockdown. We’ve had a number of Zoom and Microsoft Teams calls which have been very successful, and it seems that the judiciary has moved on 50 years in 2 weeks. I don’t think we will ever go back to ‘normal’ and I suspect that, going forward, we will continue to work in this way wherever it is appropriate to do so. The Senior Costs Judge doesn’t want things to grind to a halt so, wherever possible, we are dealing with things via Skype, Zoom and Microsoft Teams. I’ve had 2 full-day hearings for two substantial costs matters and it works well. I’m fixing more Microsoft Teams meeting where I hope to take live evidence, which is something that I would not have thought possible. With COP work, one of the benefits of the e-filing system that was introduced in January is that I can access this sitting at home, pick up cases and deal with them without too much difficulty. Where I need papers, the majority are being sent to me via the local County Court using DX and I pick them up from there. Also, in COP, I have had a couple of Costs Officers who have said that provisional assessments have not been accepted, and the solicitors have requested an oral hearing, so I’ve been able to simply access the file using the e-file system and list them without delay. The Costs Masters meet virtually on a Friday morning to discuss work loads too, which is useful. We’ve had one Master off ill, but others have picked up the work in his absence. I thought it might be a prolonged holiday for us all but that’s not happened!
- What impact do you think this will have on turnaround?
You won’t believe this but, whilst I’ve parroted on, I’ve had an email with an update so I have the exact figures, hot off the press for you! As of the 27th of April 2020, straight from the horse’s mouth, we have 656 cases in the office up to 7 weeks old, awaiting assessment. We have a further 257 waiting for supporting papers from the solicitors which have been e-filed and accepted and a further 464 in the e-filing queue waiting to be processed by the e-filing team. Essentially, we have a backlog of 1,200 cases. I’m not holding anything back from you, so hopefully you can appreciate the full picture. We have one Costs Officer who has been ill and there are 10 cases awaiting collection from them. In addition, we have 195 Final Costs Certificates waiting to be authorised, which are being prioritised at the moment above the assessments. We are in a position to deal with things at home, but the bottleneck is the admin team processing the e-filing. We are working with a 50% admin team in the office due to social distancing measures, so that is where the difficulty lies in the administration of all of those cases. I would hope that, once the rules are relaxed, we will have a full team in the office again. We have seen turnaround a lot worse than this, but I appreciate even more so as a former solicitor that cash flow is king, and I’m the first to understand that. If there is anything we can do to push this through, we will. E-filing proved to be a lot more complicated than anticipated and it has slowed things down, for which I sincerely apologise on behalf of the office.
- Has the SCCO learnt anything so far from the pandemic?
We can work virtually and electronically, rather than with high chairs and quill pens! We will have to put it all together when we get back to normality and find a new way of working. I think that the lockdown experience will provide more benefits in the years to come and, to my mind, we will move forward a lot quicker now. The majority of firms don’t work with paper files anymore so, as night follows day, it must mean electronic files move up the queue for COP, but I don’t know what the timescales are for that. We have trialled this and the Costs Officers were happy to access the solicitors’ system to carry out the assessment but, for this to be successful, there will have to be protocols and security measures. Provided we can meet those, it will move forward. There is also the electronic bill which you know about (Stephanie Kaye and Andrew McAulay are part of the committee preparing a COP electronic bill). COP will not need the same level of complexity as the current electronic bill for inter partes work, so I would hope to see an electronic bill in motion by the end of this year, or early next year and the the rest will follow. So many questions will be up for grabs and only time will tell, but I’m sure the real impact will be known when we get back. It will push us out of the Victorian times and move us into the 21st century.
- Have there been any regular issues with e-filing that Deputies should be aware of?
The hiccups have been loading it all up in the first place. With no electronic bill, it’s having to be scanned into the system and a paper copy prepared for assessment, then scanned back out to the solicitor. All the extra admin had meant that the bottleneck was even worse. Although the bill will have to be scanned to obtain a copy, the Costs Officers are sending a paper copy back to the solicitor after assessment and, from that point in time, the solicitor can electronically obtain the Final Costs Certificate. I hope this will solve some of the issues but this will be an ongoing problem, until the introduction of the electronic bill. From my own experience, the electronic bill is so much easier and it will speed up the process considerably in COP cases.
- Is the SCCO still available by telephone?
Yes, they are answering the phone. You might have to wait a little bit longer due to fewer people in the office, but there are Cost Officers and Clerks available. If they can’t answer the query, they will email the Master who might email the representatives directly, which is speeding things up. Providing they are accredited legal representatives and not parties, I am more than happy to work in this way, as are my colleagues.
- We’ve already touched on this, but do you think there will be a move to electronic files of papers for assessment in the future?
Yes. This is not in the public domain, but all I can say is that there is some movement towards a sort of ‘bundle bank’, which would mean that the SCCO is able to access an electronic bundle to carry out an assessment, rather than interrogating the solicitor’s system, which has been trialled already. That’s something that is being considered, and I’m sure lockdown will accelerate moves to electronic working.
- The MOJ invited the panel of professionals last year to comment on several areas, including consistency of reductions on assessments. Is it likely that the SCCO will update its guidance for Costs Officers and professional Deputies to help with more consistent assessments?
We will wait and see what the responses are from the MOJ on that point. We can then take a fresh look at the guide knowing the full picture. Obviously, any move to the electronic bill or electronic files of papers will mean that the guide is updated too. It will be a work in progress.
- What is the plan for your retirement?
I’ve done COP work in practice for many years. In 2006, I joined the SCCO and I couldn’t have been handed this work any quicker. I’ve worked almost exclusively from 2006 until last year or the year before on COP. Master James and Master Whalan will deal with COP after I retire. I think the senior judges would like all costs judges to deal with every aspect but in my mind, COP is specialist and you have to know what you’re doing, so I think it’s best kept with 2 or 3 judges. As for my retirement, I had planned to go on the 30th of September but in light of the current situation, I may find myself here until Christmas. The plan is to do more of what I enjoy, including sailing and hot air ballooning. A lot of my ballooning is abroad so I suspect even after lockdown, there will be difficulties with this. I might have to stay in the UK, although it’s tremendously difficult to fly a balloon in British weather! In 2021, I plan to take part in a balloon event across the English channel. I’ve done it once and I’d like to do it again – it’s much quicker than the ferry!
- How have you been keeping busy during lockdown?
I felt that staying in a flat in London wouldn’t be ideal so I’ve come back up north. I’ve spent more time with Mrs Haworth than I have in the last 15 years! The north is a pretty part of the world so, when I haven’t been working, I’ve been out walking or doing things in the garden, albeit my work in the garden mainly involves supervising Mrs Haworth!
- What are you most looking forward to after lockdown?
Meeting friends and going to the pub!!
Clarion would like to thank Master Haworth for taking part in Lockdown Lowdown. He and the SCCO continue to work extremely hard to service Court of Protection Costs work during this time. Coming up in the series, we will be hearing from Francesca Gardner from Kings Chambers and Ria Baxendale from the OPG. If you would like to suggest another interviewee for Lockdown Lowdown, please contact Stephanie Kaye at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0113 336 3402.