Court transcript overbilling inadvertent, company says

A Toronto- and Ottawa-based court reporting company has broken its months-long silence to defend itself against claims that it knowingly overcharged clients that included the Federal Court and the Tax Court of Canada.

ASAP Reporting Services Inc. says that despite its competitors’ allegations, it didn’t intentionally tinker with the number of lines per page on its transcripts in order to overcharge its customers.

ASAP won three Courts Administration Service contracts in a bidding process. Two of the competitors on the bids, Atchison & Denman Court Reporting Services Ltd. and StenoTran Services Inc., filed a complaint to the Canadian International Trade Tribunal arguing the federal body should never have awarded the contracts to ASAP since the company played with margins and number of lines per page to increase the number of pages it charged for.

In response, ASAP now says it was “one of several agencies that inadvertently overcharged for transcripts after an important change to the long-standing format was implemented without announcement.”

Kim Stewart, founder and chief executive officer of ASAP, says the Courts Administration Service suddenly changed its format requirement to 28 lines per page from the traditional 25 lines per page. The new guidelines were buried in a long request for proposal, Stewart says, noting her office missed the changes. ASAP has reimbursed the government in full for the extra pages it charged for, she adds.

“When we learned of the error, we asked CAS to cancel our contracts because our bid was based on the old model. The government reasoned that with so many bidders failing to notice the new specs, it would be better to cancel all affected contracts and start the procurement process fresh, giving everyone a chance to rebid on an equal footing,” says Stewart.

In the bid that followed, ASAP came out on top again. That came as a surprise to the complainants who argued the government shouldn’t have renewed the company’s contract given its “previous defaults with Canada.”

“ASAP’s transcripts contained 25 lines per page as opposed to the mandatory technical requirement of 28 lines per page,” their complaint to the trade tribunal reads.

The glitch, whether intentional or not, could mean the courts, law firms, and members of the public have paid more than they should have for requested transcripts of proceedings at the Federal Court and the Tax Court of Canada. Stewart says her firm hired an accountant three months ago to identify and contact parties who were overbilled in order to reimburse them as well.

StenoTran says the Courts Administration Service renewed ASAP’s contract despite being aware of the breaches. In addition, ASAP scored another contract to do transcription work for the trade tribunal, the very body now tasked with deciding whether the Courts Administration Service should have awarded the contracts to the company.

ASAP’s contract with the Courts Administration Service for services in Ottawa and Toronto will run until 2017, according to Stewart. The company won the trade tribunal contract after a bidding process conducted by Public Works and Government Services Canada.

“StenoTran respectfully submits that [Public Works], as a representative of Canada, erred in its awarding of the contract to ASAP as ASAP’s bid should have been rejected under subsection 11(1)(d) of the SACC for previous defaults with Canada,” StenoTran’s complaint reads.

In its response last week, the Courts Administration Service said StenoTran and Atchison & Denman’s complaint is “spurious and unfounded.”

“While competitive behaviour is to be encouraged, it is not welcomed when bidders level frivolous and vexatious complaints against a procurement authority and a successful bidder, as is the case here,” it said.

The response also said that in February 2013, the Courts Administration Service discovered an “administrative error that resulted in over-billing by a number of companies across Canada under a number of contracts.” It added that several other companies, including Atchison & Denman itself, didn’t meet the 28-line requirement.

“This was not an isolated, company-specific problem, but rather, an industry wide-problem. Atchison & Denman did not file its complaint with clean hands,” the response continued.

Meanwhile, a Toronto law firm says it’s doing an investigation to see if there’s potential to launch a class action lawsuit against ASAP for overcharging clients. Sotos LLP lawyer Jean-Marc Leclerc says his team has been talking to people ASAP may have overcharged with a view to possibly launching a class action against the company.

“We’re in the process of determining the extent, the nature, and the existence of the overcharges,” says Leclerc.

“All that we are in the process of doing with respect to the class action is speaking to people who may have purchased transcripts from ASAP and determining if the transcripts were prepared in accordance with the bid documents, which said they had to be of a certain length, or whether they weren’t.”

Depending on the findings, the firm will decide if it wants to launch a class action, says Leclerc. For her part, Stewart says she expects the lawyers considering a class action will read the government’s response carefully.

“I’m sure the class action lawyers who were initially evaluating the situation will read the government’s response carefully. In fact, I’m counting on it,” she says.

Although the potential class members would be customers of ASAP, other competitors are voicing concerns about the situation as well. If a court reporting firm is to produce transcripts containing 28 lines per page but instead submits 25 lines per page, that comes out to 12 extra pages for a 100-page request, says Kim Neeson of Neeson & Associates Court Reporting and Captioning Inc.

“You just want to make sure everybody is bidding on the same page,” she says.

“It makes the playing field uneven if we’re not all abiding by the same rules. As a competitor, that would be my concern.”

The trade tribunal is expected to release its decision in June.

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