My previous solicitors were replaced due to incompetence and bad advice. Which was subsequently confirmed by other divorced friends and solicitors(they would say that i would presume).
Am trying to be objective here.
I was 'over charged' for a junior's time when he asked to sit on a meeting with the solicitor just to listen in. And also was charged travel time when there was no travel that happened(this they have accepted is a mistake). When I picked up these mistakes. Now I am being told they had 'discounts' which were applied already. This covers the write offs or discounts already given. Hence you havent been 'charged' for it.
I have been given 15% off the final bill when i threatened to complain via their internal complaints procedures. Also I feel i have been charged excessively for the work of a junior who was incompetent, work which could have been done by the solicitor far quicker who was engaged in the first place.
Is this normal practise to add 'extras' so they dont get picked up and challenged and their invoice just gets paid ?
When challenged do they hide behind discounts already applied hence you didn't really pay for this. Is that really a discount or write off as they like to call it ?
Having never have dealt with solicitors before i dont know what are the practises
What are my options, do I take the 15% (which is less than the junior's time and bogus travel time combined). Do I complain to the firm and legal ombudsmen. Do i get to keep the discounts or will they argue the discounts to be used as they choose.
Just to let you know, I am having to deal with some mistakes they have made. Which they say is entirely my choice now. Poor advice all along. Also spent a fair bit of time trying to find another solicitor.
The reason I went with them even though they lived far away from me, was due to a recommendation of a barrister. A decision I truly regret now.
I am a barrister who specialises in the law of costs. It is probably now too late for my comments to be of any help, but I will try my best.
Before I do so, however, may I please ask a question of other forum members: is overcharging a common problem? The reason I ask is because I am thinking about writing a guide on the point, but I don’t want to do this is no one is going to be interested in it. I suppose this leads me to my second question which is this: would it be helpful if I were to write a guide (or perhaps a flowchart), and if so, does anyone know who I should contact in order to get it published on this site?
Now, I turn to your matter. I supposed I must first begin by saying that I know very little about your situation and that as such nothing I say should be relied upon as being legal advice.
Having got that out of the way, I will now do my best to help you. I will do this in two parts: the first will deal with the methods available to you, and the second deals with your specific arguments.
THE METHODS BY WHICH YOU MAY CHALLENGE A BILL
In very general terms, you have the following options when you are faced with a solicitor’s bill that you think is too high:
(1) You can challenge the bill yourself by simply negotiating with your solicitor;
(2) You can ask someone else to negotiate for you (see below);
(3) You can challenge the bill by making a complaint against your solicitor; if you are not happy with the outcome, you can then escalate the complaint to the Legal Ombudsman;
(4) You can challenge the bill by threatening to take the matter before the court (see below); if you do this, you can put pressure on our solicitor by making a special type of offer known as “a Part 36 Offer”; and
(5) If that does not work, you can bring a special type of claim in the court by which the court will scrutinise the bill and, if appropriate, reduce it; this is called a “solicitor and client detailed assessment”.
The first thing I will say is that whatever you do, you must do it promptly. There are certain time limits that apply to (3), (4) and (5) above, so whatever you do, don’t sit on your hands!
I do not need to say anything about (1) (negotiation) as it is simply a matter of speaking or writing to your solicitor. You should bear in mind that you may be charged for your solicitor’s time (although this would be unusual and in some cases it may be unlawful).
As to (2), it is possible to get someone else to help you in your discussions. There is a special type of lawyer known as costs lawyers who may be able to help. They would probably charge you between £125 and £180 per hour. The difficulty you will find, however, is that very few costs lawyers know about private family costs; this is because they tend to specialise in civil claims (such as personal injury and debt recovery). Some of them may have experience of family legal aid, but that is not the same as divorce costs. As such, unless you are lucky and find someone who knows what they are talking about, they may not be that effective. In view of this, ask about experience before you spend any money.
This brings us to (3), which is making a complaint. Every solicitors’ firm will have a complaints procedure, and you would be surprised how fairly complaints are dealt with. This is because they tend to be dealt with by designated complaints officers, and such people are usually very sensible and very senior. The best things about making a complaint is that if you make your points in the form of a complaint, you cannot be charged for your solicitor’s time in dealing with it. Period. No ifs or buts. This may be a considerable advantage over negotiation (ie (1) above), especially if the bill you are complaining about is a large one.
If you are not happy with the outcome of the complaints procedure, then you can -- and, if you feel that you are in the right, usually should -- escalate the matter by making a referral to the Legal Ombudsman. Again, this is free from the complainant’s perspective (although, oddly enough, the firm you are complaining about has to pay!) There is lots of information on the Legal Ombudsman’s website about how to make a referral. The only thing I need to say here is you must bear in mind the time limits.
This brings me to (4), which is to threaten legal proceedings. You do this by writing a ‘letter of claim’. You could, of course, combine this with (1) or (2), but please be aware that you cannot ask the firm to deal with the matter as a complaint if legal proceedings are looming over them.
The proceedings themselves are known as “detailed assessment proceedings”; unless you intend to issue detailed assessment proceedings within a month of receiving the disputed bill, then you will need permission. This means that when you are negotiating with the firm in question (ie when you are sending them the letter of claim), you should say that you are minded to “make an application for permission for a solicitor and client assessment”; it is quite a mouthful, but if you get the terminology right, they are more likely to take notice of you. If you want to really make them sit up and take notice, you should make a “Part 36 Offer that, in the alternative, is an admissible offer pursuant to CPR, r 44.2(4)(c)”; this really is advanced stuff if you are dealing with matters on your own, but the idea is to make them an offer that it just high enough to make the think that they may fail to beat it. Very few lawyers understand the way in which the court deals with the costs of solicitor and client detailed assessment, so if you get it right, you will really worry them. You would probably need to take advice to be able to do that well, however. If you make an offer, make it in a separate letter; do not put the offer in the letter of claim.
This brings me to (5), which is the topic of whether you should actually ask the court for an assessment. This is a legal minefield: it is one of the most complex and tricky topics that there is in the law of costs. I cannot possibly deal with it here, but I will say this: you should not even consider asking for a detailed assessment unless you are sure – utterly and completely sure – that your arguments will reduce the bill by more than 20 percent.
I now turn to the specific points you have made:
“I was 'over charged' for a junior's time when he asked to sit on a meeting with the solicitor just to listen in.”
In general, a solicitor may only charge fees if they are reasonable, but they will be deemed to be reasonable if you “approved” them. This means that the solicitor would be entitled to the fees of the junior if (a) it was reasonable to incur those costs, or (b) you approved them. In general, it is rare for it to be reasonable for two lawyers to attend a meeting. The reason that solicitors get away with this is they get their clients to approve the attendance of the second lawyer. Sadly, this is very common in private family law. This makes it almost impossible to challenge that second person’s fees. That said, the approval must be “informed approval”, and if you believe that it was not made clear to you that you have to pay for the junior’s attendance, then you would be in with a shout. I should explain that the attendance of a junior is known as “duplication of attendance”, and this would rarely be reasonable because he or she could have read the attendance note rather than attended the whole hearing. As such, it would often be the case that the costs would be reduced to the time that would have been spent if the junior had merely read the attendance note of the meeting.
“Now I am being told they had 'discounts' which were applied already. This covers the write offs or discounts already given. Hence you havent been 'charged' for it.”
I think that what they are referring to here is the practice of discounting the bill. Let’s say that a solicitor has done 19 hours work at £200 per hour; this would mean that he would, in theory, be able to charge £380. He may have set those charges out in his bill, but then reduced the amount payable by saying, “it should be £380, but let’s call it £350 instead”. If you then complain and as a result of that complaint you persuade the solicitor that he spent an hour doing work that was unnecessary, the bill would still be the same; this is because the total amount the solicitor could charge you is still more than the amount he is actually charging you (ie, £360 as against £250). If this is what has happened, then it should be obvious from looking at your bill. In particular, at the very end of the bill, it should set out the discount in clear terms.
I pause here to say that I am surprised by the figures you have given. It is very unusual for solicitors to give such large discounts (especially in private family law). If the sums involved are sufficiently large to make it worthwhile, then you may want to think about getting a costs lawyer to look at your papers.
“I feel i have been charged excessively for the work of a junior who was incompetent, work which could have been done by the solicitor far quicker who was engaged in the first place.”
Provided you are right in what you say, this is very good point to make. “Approval” is rarely a problem in respect of issues such as this. This put matters simply, you should not be paying more than is reasonable, and if a senior solicitor could have done the job at a lower cost, then that is what should have happened. It is often the case that trainee solicitors are given work to do to allow them to get experience; that may be what was going on here. Moreover, if the work the junior did was substandard (or, to use the technical lingo, it was “shoddy work”) you should not be paying.
“Do I complain to the firm and legal ombudsmen.”
From what you have told me, the answer is probably “yes” (assuming that you are not yet out of time).
“Just to let you know, I am having to deal with some mistakes they have made. Which they say is entirely my choice now. Poor advice all along. Also spent a fair bit of time trying to find another solicitor.”
I am afraid that there is nothing you can do about this (unless, of course, the advice you received was so bad as to be negligent).
Wow! What a helpful and informative post... Thank you!
As for your question, yes I think there would be many people on this site who would find any information about solicitor costs and being overcharged very helpful. I think it's a common problem. I was able to resolve my complaint about my bill directly with my solicitor, it wasn't a particularly large amount being disputed though. Their service was rather poor to... This is also a big problem for many people!
You should private message rubytuesday if you wish to publish something on the site.