Legal Bills: The intolerable cruelty of finding the right lawyer

Ahead of a shake-up in the market, how to ensure you get justice with your legal bill

Lawyers, for many of us, are a necessary evil. We'll either need them to do our dirty work, like drawing up a will, or at times of stress, such as when we're moving home or getting divorced. But compounding that stress is our uncertainty over which legal firm to turn to and how much the service will cost.

So it will be a relief to some - at least those not lucky enough to benefit from the recommendation of a friend or family member - that the range of firms providing legal services is growing. Indeed, it is set to balloon, thanks to the coming liberalisation of the £20bn legal market under what has been dubbed "Tesco Law".

Once the Law Services Bill has been passed (it is currently going through the House of Lords), banks and supermarkets will be able to offer legal help direct to consumers.

With greater competition for traditional solicitors' practices, it's hoped prices will become lower and more transparent while service improves.

Some firms are already preparing for this liberalisation, taking advantage of rules that allow non-law companies to do legal work via a hand-picked panel of lawyers.

The AA, the Halifax and the Co-op group already offer access to everyday legal services such as conveyancing and will draft documents relatively cheaply. The Halifax, for example, charges £89 for annual membership of its Legal Solutions service. Members can have wills drafted and discretionary will trusts - which could otherwise cost hundreds of pounds - drawn up for free.

Additional services such as conveyancing do cost extra but are still comparatively cheap. The Halifax charges £289 for conveyancing on a property worth up to £250,000, for example, while the typical fee at a specialist high-street solicitor would be between £500 and £600.

Mark Rawlinson from consultancy Assist Legal, a company that draws up costs for solicitors, says the new law will lead to lower bills for consumers. "Competition will inevitably bring costs down. Liberalisation will make both solicitors and the public more cost aware, and that can only be a good thing."

In the meantime, though, finding a reputable solicitor remains a struggle. There is little basis on which to compare different firms, and the issue of how much to pay is a murky one.

"The cost of a solicitor depends on the action," says Mr Rawlinson. For non-contentious work such as will drafting or conveyan- cing, you should be charged a fixed fee made clear at the outset. "If the solicitor then comes up with unexpected fees, you can dispute them."

With personal injury cases, costs are usually, but not always, borne by the losing party. "If the action is very complex and goes on for a long time, you may be left with something to pay."

The simplest way to compare costs is to ring up several law firms and ask for a written quotation for a particular piece of work. But this can take days, and "disbursements", the expenses that accrue during your time as a client, vary hugely.

It might sound intimidating but if you think you've been overcharged by your solicitor, make your complaint to that firm first.

If you get nowhere, you can complain to the Law Society, challenge the bill through the courts, or try a "legal costs" consultant. These advisers charge a fee but claim to cut bills by anything from 20 to 50 per cent.

Some ground rules: if the solicitor's final demand is close to the original estimate, or if more than 12 months have passed since the bill was issued, you're unlikely to have a case. Otherwise, you have a good chance of cutting your costs.

Of course, it is far better to guard against being ripped off in the first place. The Department for Constitutional Affairs last year launched a consumer advice website (see below), whose "7 steps to a better deal" service aims to help users of law firms.

The seven questions to demand of a solicitor include "what exactly will I be charged?" and "what do I get for my money?"

Doing your homework before you contact a solicitor is also important. "The more detail you can give at the start of the work, the better," says Mr Rawlinson. If you keep supplying new information, your solicitor may have to change strategies and this may be costly.

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