What to look out for in a Solicitor's bill
At some point in everyone’s life, a solicitor is likely to be needed, whether to buy a house, make a will or fight a court case. That means that at some point too, everyone will receive a solicitor’s bill. Less well-known is that
if the bill is unsatisfactory because the fees are excessive or the work has been sub-standard, a Judge can be asked to carry out a check to ensure that what has been charged is fair and reasonable. If not, it will be reduced.
The starting point is that the bill must contain a narrative telling you what has been done. If it is an outline bill, in contentious business (involving going to court), and if requested within three months to do so, the solicitor must provide a detailed account showing who did what, when and how long it took. For any other bill (also with the detailed account), there is an absolute entitlement to ask the Judge to check it (called “assessment”) provided that the request is made to the court within one month of receiving the final invoice for the job. If you are outside the time limit, the court can still order assessment, but might impose conditions such as paying part of the costs into court.
Going to court is not for the fainthearted. There will be a hearing, and if the bill is not reduced by more than 20%, the solicitors will be awarded their costs. These can be substantial. However if the reduction is more than that, because, for example, the solicitors took too long to do the job, they will be ordered to pay the costs and in addition, must give credit for anything taken off the bill.
Common reasons for challenging a solicitor’s bill are that an estimate has been exceeded, or that the solicitor never explained how much the case would cost, or that no cost-benefit analysis was carried out. It may be the case, too, that a house or car insurance policy or a third party such as a Trade Union, would have covered the claim, but if the solicitor does not ask and charges anyway, the court will probably disallow all their fees.
The procedures described are covered by the Solicitors Act 1974. This has changed little since it was brought into force in 1727 and it is a complex area of law with lots of traps for unwary clients and their solicitors. Thus, if you are unhappy with your solicitor’s bill, you should raise your complaint with the solicitor first, as the firm is required to provide an explanation. If that does not do the trick, before launching into a court case under the Act, and incongruous though it may sound, speak to another solicitor about the charges. There is no purpose in throwing good money after bad. If the first solicitor was no good, you have probably just been unlucky and the replacement solicitor will be able to tell you whether it is worth applying to the court for an assessment of the bill. If it is and the solicitor has been as bad as you think, the Judge will cut the bill into ribbons.
Colin Campbell. Deputy Cost Judge.