Solicitors are accused of secrecy over fees

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The Independent Online

Legal Affairs Correspondent

Solicitors frequently fail to tell clients what their fees will be, or charge hundreds of pounds more than they have quoted, Citizens' Advice Bureaux say today.

More than 350 bureaux across the country gave evidence to a detailed criticism of the legal system, Barriers to Justice. The report says it is even more crucial now that all but the very poor have to pay their own bills, because legal aid entitlement is so limited.

"One of the major areas of complaint by CAB clients concerns a lack of information about costs. This is despite the existence of written professional standards setting out the details that solicitors should give to clients about their fees."

It is often hard for clients to raise the issue of likely costs if the solicitor does not mention it, the report says.

"The Law Society's written professional standards cover information that should be given to clients on costs and estimates, and keeping clients informed about charges, but CAB evidence shows that these standards are too often ignored."

The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux says these standards should be enforced by the Law Society. At the moment they are advisory.

The society's standards state that on taking instructions, a solicitor should give the client the best possible information about the likely costs. When writing to confirm the instructions, the solicitor should record the fee agreed, tell the client of any other reasonably foreseeable charges and confirm any verbal estimate. If no fee has been agreed, the solicitor is supposed to say how the fees will be calculated.

But among the cases reported by the CABs is one in Berkshire where an elderly couple seeking access to their grandchild went in asking for legal aid, so it was clear they were short of money. They were given no estimate and were charged pounds 4,000.

In another, a woman in Essex used a solicitor to go back to court to get a better divorce settlement and was told it was impossible to estimate costs. She got an extra pounds 50 a month and the solicitor suggested she paid his pounds 2,400 bill at pounds 50 a month for the next five years.

Cases where solicitors have failed to warn that charges are higher than forecast include a woman in West Glamorgan who was told her divorce would cost pounds 400. With no warning, the final bill was pounds 900. A man in Cumbria changing the name on the deeds of his house from single to joint names was quoted pounds 80 by his solicitor and charged pounds 228, reduced to pounds 176 when he asked for an itemised bill.

In other cases, solicitors failed to warn that their costs were likely to exceed any benefits from the legal action. In one, a woman in Oxfordshire was claiming pounds 660 through the small claims court. She was awarded pounds 360, and her legal bill was pounds 1,100.

A spokesman for the Law Society said that the reports were noted with concern. It was constantly attempting to improve client care and would soon launch a campaign to try to encourage law firms to comply with practice guidelines. He pointed out that CABs by their nature encountered only disatisfied customers.

The CAB survey about lack of information given to clients is supported by the findings of the Law Society's own research earlier this year, which found almost a quarter of conveyancing and will-writing clients and more than one-third of other clients had received no information on costs.

t Barriers to Justice; Social Policy Section, NACAB; 115-123 Pentonville Road, London N1 9LZ; pounds 8.