Big Five firms acting as expert witnesses in civil litigation cases could lose work to smaller firms as the downward pressure on fees, caused by the Woolf reforms, is making them increasingly uncompetitive.
The new fears mark a complete reverse from accountancy firms’ expectations prior to the introduction of the changes in April.
Many practitioners then said moves to give courts more control over cases would force small firms out of the market due to cuts in the number of expert witnesses required.
The new powers were designed to cut court time by making litigants produce more information at the start of cases and allow judges to choose a single joint expert in cases where only one opinion was deemed necessary.
Three months on, the reforms have resulted in a cut in the numbers of experts required in smaller cases from two to one, while in many cases courts have chosen firms which offer lower fees, usually outside of the Big Five.
Grant Thornton head of forensic services Philip Kabraji said: ‘In small cases where a single joint expert is being appointed, the court is being swayed. Solicitors are compiling lists of accountants who would do the work along with their charge-out rates and the court often goes for the firm with the lowest rates. That is a real shame.’
He stressed that forcing fees down was not the original idea but repeatedly choosing the cheapest option would have a serious effect.
Though some smaller firms have noticed evidence that charge-out rates have become an issue, they recognise this could potentially mean a greater workload for them as the bigger firms incur greater costs.
Levy Gee head of litigation support services David Epstein said the need for opposing sides to agree on a single expert was also having an effect on fees, as they now had to satisfy two parties rather than just one.
‘Perhaps fees are now more of an issue and that will drive costs downwards. The firms that charge more are automatically going to be at greater risk if litigants are seeking to pay less,’ he said.
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