What price a good reputation?: Neasa MacErlean looks at the ingredients of the Chancellor's now-famous huge legal bill

ONE OF the few unexplored crevices of Norman Lamont's private life is why it cost so much to evict Sara Dale, a sex therapist, from the basement of his house in Notting Hill Gate.

The solicitors Peter Carter-Ruck & Partners stoutly defend as reasonable their bill for pounds 23,114.64. But to people outside the legal profession the size of the bill is perhaps one of the most shocking aspects of the tale. Even some lawyers are amazed. One solicitor described the bill as 'ginormous', another called it 'staggering'. Both said that they would have expected the total fees to amount to something in the region of pounds 4,000.

Many lawyers will feel that this kind of publicity over a bill will give the legal profession a bad name. Peter Carter-Ruck & Partners may have provided a Rolls-Royce service but they did it at a Rolls-Royce price, which could make the man in the street despair of being able to afford a lawyer should he need one.

The partner who handled the case, Andrew Stephenson, believes the bill to be on the low side. Mr Stephenson's bill was based on his own charge-out rate of pounds 200 an hour and the costs of using other, less expensive, lawyers in the firm. Some of the bill related to counsel's fees and other direct payments such as court fees. Mr Stephenson said: 'It's an awful lot less than the firms in the City would be charging in relation to commercial litigation.'

The survey of legal charge-out rates in the 1992/93 Chambers & Partners Directory backs him up: partner rates can reach pounds 340 in the City.

Mr Stephenson is a media specialist but he seems surprised by the interest in the size of his bill. 'It's as silly to say that eviction proceedings should cost X as it is silly to say that a divorce should cost X. It depends on the circumstances.'

The circumstances in this case were that, for obvious reasons, the Chancellor of the Exchequer wanted to remove his tenant as quickly as possible. Some tenants move as soon as an eviction order is served, but Ms Dale remained in situ for a month until a settlement was reached. Not only did Peter Carter-Ruck & Partners initiate proceedings in the County Court, where eviction orders are dealt with, but they backed up that petition with a claim for damages in the High Court.

The damages claim, alleging loss of value in the property's price once it got a bad reputation, could be seen as a tactical manoeuvre to back up one of the more complex aspects of Mr Lamont's eviction order. Ms Dale had been a good tenant in the sense that she kept up her rental payments. Mr Lamont's claim therefore had to be made on the grounds that she had broken the tenancy agreement by running a business from the premises. When these grounds are asserted, the tenant can often retain possession by promising not to breach the agreement in future. Peter Carter-Ruck & Partners had to prepare a case which would prove that, even if she promised to take up a respectable profession, Ms Dale's presence in the flat would continue to damage its worth.

In the event, the parties reached an out-of-court settlement. However, Mr Lamont's solicitors could not count on reaching an agreement and had to prepare fully for possible court hearings.

Other eviction specialists believe that the Carter-Ruck bill was not excessive. Trevor Sears of Booth & Blackwell recently dealt with an eviction order that he believes was much more simple. Nevertheless, it has still notched up fees of about pounds 2,500. This bill was based largely on the hourly charge-out rate of pounds 105 of one of the firm's assistant solicitors. And although the tenant left when the eviction order was served, the proceedings still culminated in an appearance in the County Court. The court hearing lasted only about 20 minutes, but any court appearance is extremely expensive for the person who is paying the bill. Solicitors' preparation costs, court fees and barristers' bills will all add up to fees running well into three figures.

'There can certainly be a wide range of costs,' Mr Sears said. 'If you've got a case that fights the whole way it is perfectly possible to run up a very high bill. Lawyers are very aware that, if the bill is very high, those costs might be looked at because the other side may have to pay.' Costs, he said, will often be increased by the fact that the client is a well-known figure. Such clients will attract media attention and may, therefore, require a greater degree of sensitivity.

One person who may not have been surprised at the pounds 23,114.64 bill is Ms Dale herself. Her own legal costs are said to have amounted to pounds 18,000.

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