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Home seller left whistling by solicitor complaint referee

QUERYING a solicitor's bill can be a tortuous business. But from 1 April 1994 there will be changes to improve matters.

For instance, beneficiaries under a will used to have no power to query a bill, but they are going to be able to ask for a remuneration certificate. This is a free review by the Law Society to check whether the fee charged by the solicitor is fair and reasonable.

Another change to the rules, not one for the better some would say, is that unless you receive a waiver you will now have to pay your solicitor half the bill in advance when you ask him or her to apply for the certificate.

The Solicitors' Complaints Bureau is producing leaflets to explain the changes. The SCB ought to be able to handle that task better than it dealt with a simple query a client had about a remuneration certificate.

Its treatment of Patricia Wise, a retired woman who wanted to query her solicitor's bill, has been appalling and is a prime example of how not to handle a complaint.

In 1992 Mrs Wise was selling a house for pounds 48,000. She originally received a quote for the conveyancing costs of pounds 190 plus VAT from Paul McDonald, a solicitor with Abney Garsden and McDonald in Cheshire.

Mrs Wise says: 'Charges for abortive sales had not been discussed, so it was suprising to be charged pounds 40 plus VAT for the first abortive sale, as the work that this covered would be applicable to a following sale.

'After I complained to the solicitor he agreed not to charge this pounds 40 but only to charge pounds 190 plus VAT for a completed sale.'

Three further abortive sales followed. She subsequently received bills of pounds 199.75, pounds 152.75 and pounds 176.25 for these transactions.

She was far from happy as the charges were unexpected, contacted the SCB, and asked the solicitor to apply for a remuneration certificate.

On 8 February 1993 Mr McDonald confirmed by letter that he was applying for the certificate. He wanted payment of all the outstanding bills, including the original one for pounds 40, and confirmed that interest would be charged on the whole amount - pounds 575.75.

You can usually only get a remuneration certificate if you have not paid the bill, but a solicitor can charge interest on the unpaid bill.

Mrs Wise was very concerned. She did not want to pay but was concerned about the interest charges and wanted her deeds returned.

The leaflet from the SCB advises clients that to avoid paying interest they ought to pay the bill in full. At the same time they must tell the solicitor that the bill is paid on the strict condition that the solicitor obtains a remuneration certificate. If that condition is not accepted the money must be returned.

On 8 March Mrs Wise paid the full amount in cash and appended a letter saying that the bill was being paid 'under protest pending the complaint to the Law Society'. She received her deeds.

But Mr McDonald wrote and told her that he did not accept that the costs were paid under protest.

He said that the deeds would not be released subject to any conditions other than the payment of the firm's charges. As the charges had been paid in full he said she was not entitled to a certificate.

Mrs Wise asked Mr McDonald to confirm that the application for the certificate had been made. When she did not receive the confirmation she lodged a complaint with the SCB.

Mrs Wise was asked to comment on a provisional assessment from the SCB and was told to reply by 1 July. Both solicitor and client have to comment within 21 days otherwise they are deemed to have accepted the assessment.

She replied with her comments but heard nothing further. From now on things went rapidly downhill. Mrs Wise tried to make contact over the next three months. 'They said my case had been overlooked because Mr McDonald had not replied. I wrote to the SCB telling him that I wanted the case immediately forwarded to the assistant director of the SCB.'

Finally, on 22 December, the SCB rang her. She says: 'I was told that they would send a copy of the solicitor's observations but they were unable to tell me what progress had been made since 10 June as the file was not there - but they would get back to me.'

On 19 January 1994, seven months after the parties were supposed to comment on the assessment, the SCB told her that Mr McDonald had not sent in any observations.

We spoke to the SCB on Monday, and by Thursday Mrs Wise had received two letters of apology. The SCB has also sent a further assessment of the case, on which both parties can comment.

The case will now be heard by the assistant director within a matter of a few weeks. Until the assistant director gives his verdict, the SCB will make no final judgment on the merits of the case.

Mr McDonald did not wish to comment because of the pending SCB decision.

The SCB lost the file months ago - in August of last year.

An SCB spokesman said: 'The file was lost within another file actually in an archive file. That is why the correspondence was not actioned.

'It is one of those horrible little administrative errors.

'I am sorry if Mrs Wise feels that she has had a difficult time.'