Personal finance: How to tax your lawyer about the bill

Death, taxes and using the services of a solicitor are, for most of us, inevitable parts of life's cycle. The need for lawyers seems to exist at every serious juncture, whether buying a house, getting a divorce or making a will. But what happens if the price of that legal advice is too high? Ian Hunter investigates.

Unlike the Diana Memorial Fund, which received a bill for pounds 500,000 for legal services and felt it to be a perfectly respectable price to pay, some clients do not feel they are getting value for money.

Zoe Heatherington, of the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors, comments: "Last year we received about 22,000 complaints about solicitors' services: about 60 per cent of those complaints involved an element of costs in them, only 2 per cent related purely to the issue of costs. However, if a client is complaining about a substandard service, inevitably part of that complaint will be the amount paid for the service."

By contrast, Jackie Hewitt of the Consumers' Association, observes: "Complaints received by the Consumers' Association regarding solicitors regularly relate to the amount that they charge."

Solicitors are expected, in accordance with their written professional standards, to give clients at the outset an estimate of their likely charges. If this is not possible (for example, where a dispute might develop into a full court hearing) the solicitor should tell clients how the fee will be calculated.

Typically, solicitors charge on the basis of an hourly rate. Rates fluctuate widely, depending on the solicitor's experience, speciality and location. Some City solicitors are known to charge rates in excess of pounds 300.

If the solicitor does not volunteer such information the client should ask for an estimate of costs. If an estimate is not possible, an alternative is to set a cap on the level of fees that can be incurred by the solicitor. This will give the client an opportunity to review progress before chalking up further costs.

Those who are unhappy with their legal bill should take the issue up with the solicitor. The Office for the Supervision of Solicitors comments: "If you feel your solicitor is charging you too much, as a first step you should always let the firm know your concerns and ask to see or speak to someone who may be able to help you answer your questions."

Those who remain unhappy can still have their bill checked in one of two ways. The first route, which is available only when the legal work does not involve court proceedings, is to obtain a Remuneration Certificate from the Law Society. By this process, the Law Society will examine the solicitor's file on the matter and then review the client's bill to ensure that the fee is fair. The service is provided free of charge.

Two conditions must be satisfied before a Remuneration Certificate is granted. First, when the request is made, the bill must remain unpaid. If the solicitor has already deducted his costs from funds held on account for the client (typically this happens when a solicitor acts on the sale of a house), the bill will be treated as unpaid unless the client has given permission for the deduction.

Second, the request must be made by the client no more than a month after the solicitor makes the client aware of his right to a Remuneration Certificate. If the solicitor has not informed the client of the right to ask for a Remuneration Certificate the client can apply for one, provided no more than three months have passed since he received the bill and the solicitor has deducted his costs from money held on behalf of the client. Clients should write to their solicitors to ask them to apply for a Remuneration Certificate.

Once the client has asked for a Remuneration Certificate, the solicitor must complete an application form and forward it, together with the relevant file, to the Law Society. A client's demand for a Remuneration Certificate is a nightmare for a busy solicitor. Complying with such a request is a time-consuming exercise, for which a bill cannot be submitted.

The advantage for the client who opts for a Remuneration Certificate is that he has nothing to lose, apart from his solicitor's goodwill. The Law Society cannot authorise an increase in the bill even though it has the power to reduce it. The solicitor's only comfort is that after he has told his client of the right to obtain a Remuneration Certificate, he can charge interest on an outstanding bill backdated to one month after the date on which the bill was delivered.

The alternative method of checking whether a bill is reasonable is to ask for it to be "taxed" at a hearing, presided over by a court official. This procedure is the only way by which legal fees incurred in court proceedings can be vetted. The procedure can also be used for work that did not involve court proceedings.

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 any specific items of expenditure incurred were justifiable.

The advantage of taxation is that, unlike Remuneration Certificates, 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 have to pay the solicitor's taxation hearing costs.

Office for the Supervision of Solicitors, helpline: 01926 822007/8/9; Remuneration Certificate enquiry line: 01926 822022; More information on taxation: 0171-936 6093.

WHAT TO DO IF YOU ARE OVERCHARGED:

1. Ask for an estimate of fees at the outset or, at minimum, the solicitor's hourly charge out rate.

2. If unhappy with the bill, take it up with the firm of solicitors - if necessary the senior partner.

3. Consider asking the solicitor to apply for a Remuneration Certificate or have the bill taxed.

4. If you are unhappy generally with the service provided by your solicitor contact the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors.

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