Has your latest bill from your lawyer left you reeling in shock? If the fee was larger than you expected, you can dispute it. Lawyers, as heavily regulated professionals, are obliged to pre-warn clients as to the likely amount they will be charged. If they fail to do this, there is a system in place that allows clients to dispute the fee.
The first thing to do is to contact your solicitor. A mistake may have been made in calculating the bill. Or, your solicitor may agree to lower the bill.
If no mistake has been made, and you still think you’re being charged over the odds, you can apply to have the bill checked by an impartial third party. In England and Wales, this is done free of charge through the Legal Complaints Service—the consumer help body for lawyers’ clients, and is known as the ‘Remuneration Scheme’.
Please note—there are strict time limits for this.
You have one month to apply to your solicitor for a remuneration certificate—the form you need to fill in to have your bill checked. This month runs from the day your solicitor informed you of your right to apply for a remuneration certificate (this information may have been printed on the back of your bill). If your solicitor has not told you about this right then you have three months from the date you receive the bill to apply to your solicitor in writing for a remuneration certificate.
If your legal work did not involve going to court, then the Legal Complaints Service can check your bill to see whether it is fair and reasonable.
This whole process can take about five months. It is worth pointing out that bills can only be reduced or kept the same under the remuneration scheme, they can’t be increased. However, the solicitor can charge interest on any outstanding amount.
The Legal Complaints Service advises that, if you want to pay your bill after you’ve applied for a remuneration certificate, to avoid paying interest, then you should inform your solicitor in writing that “payment is made subject to the outstanding application for a remuneration certificate continuing and if you (the solicitor) do not accept this condition, the payment must be returned”. Otherwise, you could forfeit your right to a remuneration certificate.
If your case went to court, then the court can check your bill and decides whether it is fair and reasonable. This is not free, and you may also be asked to pay costs. It is best to get independent legal advice before doing this.
If you have any queries, you can phone the Legal Complaints Service helpline on 0845 608 6565.
If it is your solicitor’s handling of the work that you wish to complain about, then you should write to complain. Make sure you keep a copy of all correspondence.
If that does not fix the problem, then you can complain to the Legal Complaints Service.
If your solicitor’s behaviour potentially amounts to professional misconduct then your complaint will be referred to the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which will investigate. You may consequently be awarded compensation of up to £1 million.
If it is the quality of the work or service that is the problem, then the Legal Complaints Service can investigate and can order your solicitor to pay you compensation of up to £15,000.
If you believe your solicitor was professionally negligent then you can sue for damages. The Legal Complaints Service can refer you to a solicitor who specialises in professional negligence, or you can yourself seek out a specialist in this area.
As in England and Wales, the first step is to speak to your solicitor or client relations partner in the firm if you think you have been charged too much. If this does not resolve your concerns then you can have your solicitor’s account independently scrutinised.
This independent scrutiny is carried out by the Auditor of Court, and is known as the ‘taxation’ of the solicitor’s account. Despite these names, this process has nothing to do with courts or tax—the Auditor is simply an official who happens to be based in every Sheriff Court in Scotland.
The good news is that it is a relatively simple process—simply ask your solicitor to submit the account for ‘taxation’. You will be asked to sign various forms, and your solicitor will arrange the rest. Both client and solicitor are bound to accept the Auditor’s judgment on the correct fee.
The bad news is that you may have to pay extra for this service. The Auditor has a discretionary power to charge a fee for the service, which can be about three per cent of the account plus VAT.
For more information, contact your local Sheriff Court—telephone numbers are listed in telephone directories, or available online.
To make a complaint about your solicitor, you should contact the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission on 0131 201 2130. Website: www.scottish legalcomplaints.org.uk
The Commission will advise you how to proceed.
In Northern Ireland, if you are unhappy about your solicitor’s bill, you can apply for a remuneration certificate or seek an order for taxation.
You have a statutory right to have your solicitor apply for a remuneration certificate, which is a procedure for assessing whether your bill is reasonable. You should write to your solicitor requesting this, and send a copy of the letter to the Law Society of Northern Ireland.
You can not apply for a remuneration certificate if more than one month has lapsed since you were informed by your solicitor that you have a right to apply for this certificate; if you have already received and paid your solicitor’s bill; if the high court or taxing master has ordered that the bill be taxed; or if your bill relates to maters that went to court.
Alternatively, you can ask for the bill to be taxed—this means it is assessed by a court official called the Taxing Master. This must be done within three months of your receiving the bill (or six months under exceptional circumstances). You will usually be asked to pay a fee for this service. You can contact the Taxing Master Office in Belfast for further details, or ask your solicitor.
To make a complaint about your solicitor, you should first raise your concerns with your solicitor in writing, and then write to the Law Society of Northern Ireland. The Law Society will advise you further about the procedures involved.
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