Check your solicitor's bill. You could be overcharged

A recent Law Society survey indicated that one of the complaints against solicitors was of excessive bills and not being warned in advance about likely costs. Legal advice is not cheap. According to the Chambers & Partners 1995-6 directory of The Legal Profession, a partner's time can cost as much as pounds 335 an hour in London and up to pounds 220 an hour in the provinces. It is not surprising that at rates like these clients want value for money.

If a client suspects his bill is unreasonably high, he can usually have it vetted in one of two ways. The first route, available only where the legal work does not involve court proceedings, is to obtain a remuneration certificate from the Law Society. By this method, the Law Society will examine the solicitor's file free of charge to ensure the fee is fair. This right is restricted to bills of up to pounds 50,000.

Two conditions must be satisfied before a certificate is granted. First, when the request is made, the bill must remain unpaid. If the solicitor has already deducted his costs from the funds held on account for the client, the bill will be treated as having been paid if the client has given permission for such a deduction.

Secondly, the request for a remuneration certificate must be made no more than one month after the solicitor first makes the client aware of his right, or from the delivery of the bill, whichever is the later.

Once the client has asked for a certificate, the solicitor must complete an application form and send it together with the relevant file to the Law Society. Most solicitors will be anxious to avoid such an exercise because it is a time-consuming task for which they cannot charge.

The client, within a month of requesting a certificate, must pay the solicitor half the bill, the VAT on all of the bill together with any disbursements such as stamp duty. In certain circumstances, the Law Society may waive the client's requirement to make payment.

The solicitor is, a month after delivering the bill, entitled to charge interest. The precise amount of interest awarded will be calculated by reference to the actual amount the Law Society decides the client should pay.

A client who values his solicitor's advice should be aware of the damage a request for a remuneration certificate is likely to have on future relations. The main advantage for clients who opt for the remuneration certificate is that they have nothing to lose apart from their solicitor's goodwill.

The alternative method of checking whether a solicitor's bill is reasonable is to ask for it to be "taxed'' at a hearing presided over by a court official. At this hearing, the solicitor's aim is to defend his bill. He must convince the official that the time spent on the matter was reasonable and that specific items of expenditure incurred were justified.

The advantage of taxation is that, unlike the remuneration certificate, bills incurred in court proceedings can also be queried. The disadvantage is that, if the bill is reduced by less than a fifth, the client will be responsible for the solicitor's costs.

The Law Society has introduced professional conduct rules for solicitors which cover the information that should be given to clients on the issue of costs. The code on standards comments: " ... one of their particular objects is to ensure that clients who are unfamiliar with the law and lawyers receive information, they need to make what is happening more comprehensive and thus to reduce areas of potential conflict and complaint. Failure to give adequate information on costs frequently give rise to complaints about solicitors".

Solicitors are reminded of their duty to keep clients informed about costs and of the requirement, on taking instructions, to inform the client of the likely cost of handling the matter. The discussion should also cover how costs will be met, including whether they may be covered by legal aid or insurance. If no fee is agreed or estimate given, the solicitor should tell the client how the fee will be calculated. The position on costs should be subsequently confirmed in writing.

Solicitors are warned that: "Unreasonable failure to advise a client properly of some matters, particularly on the risks as to costs in litigation or the availability of legal aid, may give rise to a claim in negligence." Such claims will presumably mean even more legal costs.

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