Charging the chartered: Bills from the professionals are hard to roll back. Sue Fieldman reports

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IF YOU FEEL that an accountant, solicitor or other professional adviser has overdone it with his fees, it can be an uphill struggle to get the bill reduced.

Some top City professionals have come in for heavy criticism recently over the fees charged for their attempts to find the missing money in the Maxwell empire. These bills run into millions of pounds, and such high-profile cases get high-profile publicity. But what can you do if you think you have been overcharged hundreds rather than millions by an adviser?

If you fear you've been overcharged by a chartered accountant, the Institute of Chartered Accountants, the governing body, will give you the distinct impression it is your problem not theirs. The institute provides a free leaflet entitled Fee Disputes, but in its first paragraph says: 'Except in the case of investment services, The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales cannot intervene in a dispute about fees between a client and his Chartered Accountant because this is essentially a matter of contract law which . . . can only be determined by the courts.'

If you are not put off at the outset, the institute does run two arbitration schemes: one for disputed fees under pounds 2,500, and one for those above. However, as with all forms of arbitration, both sides have to agree to be bound. There are also costs involved.

If the disputed fee is under pounds 2,500 there is a fixed cost of pounds 250 plus VAT payable in advance. Who ultimately pays the cost depends on how much the bill is knocked down. The institute refunds you, or the accountant, as appropriate. In addition you have to pay the administrative charge of pounds 25 plus VAT.

The scheme was revamped in January to provide for fixed fees. Since then there have been 'only a couple of cases' - possibly because few people know about it. A spokesman for the institute said: 'There are moves for accountants to have to advise clients that such a scheme exists, but they do not have to do so at the moment.'

The institute is arranging for leaflets on the arbitration scheme to be put into public libraries and is revising the fee disputes leaflet.

If your dispute is with a certified accountant, the Chartered Association of Certified Accountants likewise 'does not get involved in pure fee disputes' - unless related to investment services.

The Association does have an arbitration scheme and there is no fee, but you have to agree to pay the arbitration costs if they are awarded against you. There is no explanatory leaflet but if you write to the association you will get the 'standard letter'.

If overcharged by a solicitor, the Law Society makes an effort to lend a hand, although it is somewhat limp-wristed. If the legal work did not involve court proceedings, you can apply to the Law Society for a free review of the bill: a remuneration certificate.

The idea sounds good in theory but in practice is bogged down in rigid conditions. For example, you must not have already paid the bill, and you must lodge the request for a certificate within one month of being told by your solicitor that you have a right to one.

The other possible procedure, known as taxation, has to be done through the courts. As with remuneration certificates, there are strict time limits involved.

The Solicitors Complaints Bureau has a free leaflet that sets out the procedures available.

Before rushing into any of these time-consuming procedures for having fees rolled back, there is an obvious first step: have you actually asked the adviser to reduce the bill? Many people overlook this direct approach.

For many firms it is often more cost-effective to reduce the bill than to get involved in protracted arbitration or court proceedings over a few hundred pounds.

Fee Arbitration Officer, Institute of Chartered Accountants, 0908-248 348; Chartered Association of Certified Accountants, 071-242 6855; Solicitors Complaints Bureau, 0926- 820 082.

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