Applicant brings case beyond jurisdiction; respondent doesn’t take the point until the last minute; no one gets costs

Jasmin Solar Pty Ltd v Fitzpatrick Legal Pty Ltd [2017] VSC 220 is a little case, but it is instructive about a number of things: solicitor-client taxations can take an awfully long time; some businesses probably don’t understand that they are ‘commercial clients’ and so fail to negotiate rights in lieu of the rights to seek taxation which, under the LPUL they no longer have; some lawyers no doubt have standardised disclosures which advise their clients that they have rights which, if they are commercial clients, they do not have; the costs proportionality provisions extend to cases where costs have become disproportionate as a result of a simple oversight by one or other side’s lawyers.

Continue reading “Applicant brings case beyond jurisdiction; respondent doesn’t take the point until the last minute; no one gets costs”

What can barristers charge for?

I gave a presentation at the really well organised Junior Bar Conference this year.  The Bar sought questions which the junior barristers who attended wanted answers to.  One question, which I thought odd, but which I answered  earnestly, was ‘What can a barrister charge for?’  This was my answer:

The starting position is freedom of contract, such that barristers can charge for whatever they can get someone to promise to pay. The costs provisions of the LPUL (the Legal Profession Uniform Law (Victoria)) mostly do not apply in favour of commercial or government clients and commercial and government third party payers. There is newly room, therefore, for much greater creativity in contracting with such clients. Note the application of some provisions about conditional costs agreements and contingency fees, however, even in relation to such clients and such third party payers: s. 170. Continue reading “What can barristers charge for?”

The latest on pro bono costs agreements which preserve the possibility of a costs order against the other side

For far too long, the law was unclear about whether costs agreements which said ‘We’ll only charge you if you win and only for work in respect of which we get a costs order’ actually worked.  The problem was that losing parties invoked the indemnity principle in the law of costs, arguing that what was recoverable under a costs order was nil.  The indemnity principle says that party-party costs awards are in no way punitive; they are wholly compensatory. Party-party costs orders are awarded as a partial indemnity to the winning party’s liability for their lawyers’ fees and other expenses of the litigation.  If the winning party has no such liability at the time of the costs order, there is nothing for the losing party to be ordered partially to indemnify.  Where the winner’s liability to pay their lawyer was conditional on a party-party costs order, there was, at the moment of making the costs order, nothing to indemnify.  Wentworth v Rogers [2006] NSWCA 145 was the leading case for many years.  Justice Santow’s dictum was favourable to pro bono solicitors while Justice Basten’s was unfavourable.  The third judge did not weigh in on this question.

What the judges in that case said, however, was obiter dicta.  Now there is a unanimous decision of the Victorian Court of Appeal which actually decides that this kind of costs agreement works; the winning party may obtain from the losing party a party-party costs order by way of a partial indemnity against the liability to pay their lawyers.  The case is Mainieri v Cirillo [2014] VSCA 227 and Nettle, Hansen and Santamaria JJA expressly preferred Justice Santow’s reasoning in Wentworth. It may be expected that state courts, including Courts of Appeal, elsewhere in Australia will follow the Victorian Court’s decision:  Farah Constructions Pty Ltd v Say-Dee Pty Ltd [2007] HCA 22 at [134] and [158].

That is the good news though.  The bad news is that an unfortunate level of confusion still prevails in relation to costs agreements which are even closer to pure pro bono in that they say ‘We won’t charge you anything unless you get a costs order, and then we will only charge you so much as you are actually able to recover from the person ordered to pay costs under the costs order’.  A costs agreement which was, as a matter of substance, to that effect was found not to present a problem in LM Investment Management Limited v The Members of the LM Managed Performance Fund [2014] QSC 54.  Then in Mainieri, the Court of Appeal left open in obiter dicta  the possibility that a costs agreement in which the winning party’s liability to pay their solicitors was conditional on recovery of costs from the losing party might not work.  Subsequently, in Mourik v Von Marburg [2016] VSC 601 the Costs Judge in Victoria decided that such an agreement in fact does not work, but the correctness of that decision has subsequently been doubted in dicta of a Victorian Federal Court judge sitting in Sydney.  What a mess.  But I am not convinced that the pro bono sector should give up on obtaining judicial recognition of a costs agreement which, as a matter of substance, predicates recovery of costs on the actual recovery of costs from the other side. Continue reading “The latest on pro bono costs agreements which preserve the possibility of a costs order against the other side”

Too broad a range of estimates of total costs causes NSW solicitor great grief

Frontier Law Group Pty Ltd v Barkman [2016] NSWSC 1542 is an ex tempore decision of Justice Slattery in an urgent application to extend the operation of a caveat lodged by solicitors over their client’s property.  The application failed in part because the solicitors did not prove, even to the prima facie level required in such an application, that the money said to be owing and secured by the equitable charge which was the subject of the caveat was in respect of fees invoiced under the costs agreement referred to in the caveat.  That is not particularly interesting except as schadenfreude.

Two things are interesting though, given that the costs agreement was probably entered into in 2012 and so the Legal Profession Act 2004 (NSW) almost certainly applied (even though the Court looked also at the situation under the Legal Profession Uniform Law (NSW)):

  • First, the Court found that the range of estimates of total legal costs was so wide as not to comply with the relevant disclosure obligation.
  • Secondly, the Court appears to have treated the extension application as the commencement of proceedings for the recovery of legal costs, such that the statutory preconditions to such proceedings needed to be, but were not, proven to be satisfied by the lawyers.

I cannot think of another authority which states so plainly that some estimates are so imprecise as to render them non-compliant with the obligation to give a range of estimates of total legal costs.  But now we have it: a decision of the Supreme Court of NSW under a legislative scheme of which Victoria is also a part and which is likely to be followed as a matter of comity in Victoria.

What the Court said is: Continue reading “Too broad a range of estimates of total costs causes NSW solicitor great grief”

A little case about a barrister suing a solicitor for fees

Barnet Jade has given us an admirably constructed decision of Assessor Olischlager, a no-doubt busy decision maker in the Small Claims Division of the Local Court in NSW.  Dupree v Russo [2016] NSWLC 8 was a barrister’s suit for fees against a solicitor.  Call me a dag, but it is always a pleasure to find diligent, elegant decisions carefully considering bang-on authority from the busiest decision makers who generally receive little assistance in the researching and writing of decisions. The decision considers whether costs agreements came into existence by the continued giving of instructions, and between whom, what disclosure obligations the barrister had, and whether the limitation period for suing for the fees was re-set by an acknowledgement of debt by the solicitor.

The barrister offered to enter into a costs agreement jointly and severally with his instructing solicitor and their client.  The offer said that the continuing provision of instructions would be taken as acceptance.  The solicitor continued to give instructions on behalf of the client.  The Court found that a costs agreement arose: the instructions were given by the solicitor personally and as agent for his client, as an act of acceptance on both their parts.  As the Assessor said: Continue reading “A little case about a barrister suing a solicitor for fees”

When can lawyers contract out of taxation (part 3)

This is part 3 of a post about the circumstances in which lawyers can avoid having their fees taxed.  Parts 1 and 2 are here and here.  In GLS v Goodman Group Pty Ltd [2015] VSC 627, Macaulay J held that an accord and satisfaction which was found to have been made in relation to fees previously rendered for work already done was not a ‘costs agreement’ in the sense of that expression in the now-repealed but still operative Legal Profession Act 2004, so that the prohibitions on contracting out of taxation in costs agreements, and the writing requirements for costs agreements were not applicable.  His Honour distinguished Amirbeaggi and Jaha, discussed in the two previous posts, explaining that he was following Beba.

Justice Macaulay ruled: Continue reading “When can lawyers contract out of taxation (part 3)”

When can lawyers contract out of taxation? (part 2)

This is part 2 of a post about in what circumstances lawyers can avoid having their fees scrutinised by the Supreme Court by the process traditionally known as ‘taxation’, but more recently also described in statutes as ‘costs review’ and ‘costs assessment’.  Part 1 is here. First, a disclosure: I argued Beba at first instance, for the lawyers, and advised in the appeals.

In Beba Enterprises Limited v Gadens Lawyers [2013] VSCA 136, a borrower promised the lender to pay the lender’s legal costs if they defaulted.  Of course, they did default, and the lender demanded a sum which included an allowance for the lender’s legal fees occasioned by the default. The borrower and lender compromised their dispute, including in relation to the legal fees payable.  Nevertheless, the borrower sought taxation of the lender’s legal fees by issuing a summons for taxation addressed to Gadens Lawyers, the lender’s solicitors. Continue reading “When can lawyers contract out of taxation? (part 2)”

When can lawyers contract out of taxation? (part 1)

Often enough, lawyers would love to avoid having their costs taxed.  Under the repealed but still operative Legal Profession Act 2004, lawyers could contract out in advance of the obligation to have their fees reviewed by taxation with ‘sophisticated clients’, but I do not recall ever having seen anyone attempt to do so.

When lawyers have not complied perfectly, vis-a-vis unsophisticated clients, with the costs disclosure regime under the repealed but still relevant Legal Profession Act 2004, they could not recover their fees unless there had been a taxation: s. 3.4.17.

It was clear that unsophisticated clients could not validly agree to waive in advance of the fees being incurred their right to tax their lawyers’ charges. But what about if the solicitors entered into a compromise of a dispute about their already rendered fees with their client?

How did the law of accord and satisfaction apply? (Accord and satisfaction is the litigation estoppel equivalent to res judicata when a dispute is compromised or ‘settled’ rather than adjudicated upon.)

Can lawyers get certainty and avoid further disputation (including taxation) in return for a discount on their fees?  Can they get around the s. 3.4.17 prohibition on recovering fees in cases of disclosure defaults unless they have been taxed?  If a taxation is commenced and then compromised, I would think there was no doubt that the fees have been ‘taxed’ for the purposes of this rule, especially if the compromise were embodied in orders finalising the taxation.  But what if the compromise occurs without any summons for taxation having been issued? Need the compromise comply with the formal requirements for costs agreements on the basis that they are agreements about the payment of legal costs which have been which have been charged for the provision of legal services?  Does the accord have to state expressly that the client waives the right to taxation?

It seemed until recently, that lawyers could not preclude taxation by compromising a dispute with a client or associated third party payer about fees, because such agreements would amount to a ‘costs agreement’ under the Legal Profession Act 2004.  Costs agreements were defined, after all, to mean ‘an agreement about the payment of legal costs’: s. 3.4.2, where ‘legal costs’ were defined by s. 1.2.1 to mean, amongst other things, ‘amounts that a person has been … charged by … a law practice for the provision of legal services…’).  And the Act prohibited unsophisticated clients from contracting out of their right to taxation.  Attempts to do so were void: ss. 3.4.26(5), 3.4.31.

The cases in this blog post (Amirbeaggi (NSWSC, 2008) and Jaha (SCV, 2012) explain why unsophisticated clients were apparently equally unable validly to waive their right to taxation after the fees had been incurred as they were unable to do so in advance, by virtue of the breadth of the definition of ‘costs agreement’.

Subsequent blog posts will consider what the Court of Appeal has had to say in a case indirectly on point, and explain the true state of the law in Victoria, as declared by the Supreme Court. It seems now that Victorian lawyers in dispute with their clients can buy their way out of taxation by giving clients a bit of a discount, and that this can occur without any writing or other formalities associated with ‘costs agreements’, and without any express reference to the future unavailability of taxation.  The client need not even be aware that they are giving up their right to taxation.  And that is so because agreements about how much a lawyer will accept in full and final satisfaction of their claim for fees already rendered for work already done are not ‘costs agreements’ governed by the Act after all. Continue reading “When can lawyers contract out of taxation? (part 1)”

Transitional arrangements for costs provisions of Legal Profession Uniform Law

Further update, 15 February 2017: The Victorian Legal Services Commissioner has formally advised me, and authorised me to tell you, that he will treat the transitional provisions as meaning that where the solicitor’s retainer is governed by the 2004 Act, so too will barristers’ retainers by the solicitor be governed by that Act, even if the brief post-dates the 1 July 2015 commencement of the LPUL.

Update: The position of the post-1 July 2015 briefed barrister briefed by a solicitor retained pre-1 July 2015 is not as clear as I suggested below.  So now it’s me who’s arguably been disseminating misinformation: my apologies.  But it seems to me that there has plainly been a drafting error.  Certain that I knew what the intention of the transitional provision was, I overlooked what the actual words of cl. 18(2) say:

‘If a law practice [read ‘barrister’] is retained by another law practice [read ‘solicitor’] on behalf of another client [read, I would suggest, ‘a client’] on or after [1 July 2015] in relation to a matter in which the other law practice [read ‘solicitor’] was retained by the client before [1 July 2015]—

(a)  Part 4.3 of this Law does not apply in respect of the other law practice [as drafted, this must be a reference to the solicitor, and this is the error] in relation to that matter; and

(b)  in that case the provisions of the old legislation relating to legal costs … continue to apply.’

As drafted, there is no point to the provision.  It is otiose in the context of cl. 18(1), which is said to be subject to sub-clause (2).  It is beyond doubt in my mind that what was intended was a provision cognate with the similar provision in the Legal Profession Act 2004, which is as follows:

‘(2)     Part 3.4 of this Act does not apply in respect of a law practice that is retained by another law practice on behalf of a client on or after the commencement day in relation to a matter in which the other law practice was retained by the client before the commencement day and in that case Part 4 of the old Act continues to apply.’

If the transitional provision as enacted is given its literal meaning, which given the apparent absence of ambiguity might require sophisticated argument to avoid, then the absurd situation will arise where one part of the legal team is regulated by one Act and the other by another.  This may well be a situation where the provision is read to mean something other than what it plainly seems to say in order to avoid an absurd result which parliament could not be taken to have intended.  Nevertheless, the answer should lie in retrospective amendment, and I believe that this problem will now be raised urgently at the highest levels, so I will keep you posted.

Original post: Misinformation about the transitional provisions for the new law regulating legal practice set to commence on 1 July 2015 is circulating around the Bar.  Most people seem to understand that the question of whether the Legal Profession Act 2004 continues to have operation to a solicitor’s retainer after its repeal or whether the Legal Profession Uniform Law applies is answered by working out when instructions were first taken in ‘the matter’.  (Let me digress for a moment. What a ‘matter’ is is not defined in the new Law (or the old Act), and remains a mystery to the world of costs law, although some guidance may be found in Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Land Council v Darkinjung Pty Ltd [2010] NSWSC 132.  It is not clear that ‘matter’ and ‘retainer’ are co-extensive, and nor is it clear that a ‘matter’ is equivalent in scope to the scope of a ‘costs agreement’ which is applicable: that, I think we can say with some confidence.  Generally, parties may agree as between themselves on what a statute is to be taken to mean.  Those who take a sophisticated approach to handling costs disclosures under the new Law are likely to reduce the scope of their risk by carefully defining what a ‘matter’ is.  More about that anon, perhaps, but the broader the retainer the more difficult the task of estimating total legal fees, and if the ‘matter’ in respect of which disclosure must be given may be attenuated by agreement, that would seem sensible from the lawyer’s point of view.  Clients ought resist such an approach and actually ask what they want to know (e.g. how much might this litigation you’re proposing for me cost if the other side appeals all the way to the High Court and things go as pear shaped as can be imagined, and what are my chances of getting out of it without having to pay the other side’s costs at different points along the way?).)

What seems not to be appreciated is that which law applies to a barrister’s brief by a solicitor (as opposed to a direct access brief) depends on which law applies to the solicitor’s retainer.  So a solicitor first instructed in relation to a matter prior to 1 July 2015 will continue to be governed by the old Act, and a barrister first briefed by that solicitor in that matter (or re-briefed in it for that matter) after 1 July 2015 will continue to be bound by the old Act too.  The transitional provision is cl. 18 of Schedule 4 to the Legal Profession Uniform Law Application Act 2014 and sub-clause (2), apposite to barristers, is set out at the end of the post. Continue reading “Transitional arrangements for costs provisions of Legal Profession Uniform Law”

Client obtains Anton Piller order over solicitor’s hard disk in fees dispute

Ho v Fordyce [2014] NSWSC 1404 is a decision in an ex parte application of which the solicitor had no notice and did not participate. There is a dispute between solicitor and client in relation to fees.  The client contended that costs agreements relied on by the solicitor were ‘a recent invention’.  Given that the client asserts that there was no costs agreement, presumably the implication is that someone forged the documents relied on by the solicitor.  The client applied for an Anton Piller-like order allowing IT people to march into the solicitor’s office and copy certain contents of the solicitor’s hard disk in order to preserve evidence which may assist in proving the implied fraud.

In a brief judgment given ex tempore, Rein J granted the application, relying on a decision of the Victorian Supreme Court’s Justice McMillan. The question of the likelihood of privileged material being present on the firm’s computers is not something discussed in the reasons.  It may well be dealt with in the order, which is not reproduced in the reasons. I have never heard of any such application having been made by a client or granted against a solicitor in such circumstances before.

What his Honour said was:

’10  I do not wish to suggest that I am satisfied at this stage that there has been any false creation of documents. Rather there is a contention that it has occurred, and there is some support for that possibility in the evidence which has been presented. If it has occurred it will be difficult to prove and, if the secrecy of this application were not preserved until the point at which someone independent is at the office to obtain copies, the opportunity to establish that there has been recent creation (if that be the fact) will be lost.

11  In other words, for the plaintiff to have to present a normal application for discovery may act to the disadvantage of the plaintiff forensically and, accordingly, in circumstances where (a) the ambit of information which is sought is very narrow and (b) the consequences of the making of these orders will be of very limited effect, if it turns out that there has been no recent creation, weighs in favour of the making of the order.’

What does an indemnity costs order actually get you?

On 3 October 2014, Besanko J decided in Bob Jane Corporation Pty Ltd v ACN 149 801 141 Pty Ltd [2014] FCA 1066 that an order of a fellow judge that one party pay the other’s costs on an indemnity basis, which did not specify that the costs were to be assessed by reference to the successful party’s costs agreement with its solicitors, entitled it to costs assessed on that basis.

The Federal Court is therefore a better place to get an indemnity costs order than the Supreme Court because the law in the Supreme Court, as determined by the Costs Judge,  is that the beneficiary of an indemnity costs order gets costs assessed according to the same scale as ordinary costs are assessed by reference to, but with an easier road to showing that the costs incurred ought to be paid by the other party at all: ACN 074 971 109 as trustee for the Argo Unit Trust v National Mutual Life Association of Australia Limited [2013] VSC 137.

In the Supreme Court, of course, a special costs order allowing costs to be taxed by reference to the costs agreement may still be sought, and obtained, e.g. Sunland Waterfront (BVI) Ltd v Prudentia Investments Pty Ltd (No 3) [2012] VSC 399.  But that is the exception rather than the default, and one which many trial counsel may not be aware of.

So badly do many trial counsel deal with the question of costs that it really would not be a bad idea if litigants got advice more often than they do from costs lawyers before costs fell to be argued in any case in which there are substantial costs and fault in the costs sense on both sides, or a number of interlocutory costs issues remaining for determination.

Mind you, according to Besanko J, it has long been thus.  His Honour pointed to Beach Petroleum NL v Johnson (1995) 57 FCR 119 at 121 (per Von Doussa J) and older cases from other jurisdictions.

This case demonstrates that ultimately what determines questions of costs is always the statutory instrument which provides for them.  Increasingly, one jurisdiction’s jurisprudence will not prove persuasive in relation to different statutory regimes.

What orders ought follow the setting aside of a costs agreement?

BGM v Australian Lawyers Group Pty Ltd [2014] WASC 290 (S) is a decision confined to questions about what ought to follow from a Court coming to a view that a costs agreement ought to be set aside.  Three matters are of interest:

1.  The Court took the view that it followed as a matter of statutory construction that upon a costs agreement being set aside, bills rendered pursuant to it were of no force and effect, and declined to make a declaration to that effect because it was unnecessary.

2. Though the Court assumed that some form of restitutionary relief would entitle the applicant to repayment of monies paid under such bills, the Court declined to make any such order because no such relief had been pleaded in the originating process.

3.  The Court declined an application for costs by the successful applicant for the setting aside of the costs agreement.  It did so on the basis that there was a Calderbank offer to accept a sum of money in satisfaction of the lawyers’ claim to fees.  The applicant argued that it had succeeded in the application to set aside the costs agreement and that the Calderbank offer should be brought to bear in the subsequent phase of ascertaining the fees against a scale which applied in default of the costs agreement having application.  But the Court reserved the question of the costs of the application to set aside the costs agreement pending the finalisation of that second phase.

Is solicitor-director of ILP which acted for him to be treated as self-represented?

A NSW solicitor was partially successful in a defamation suit.  But for the circumstance that he had retained an incorporated legal practice with which he was associated and for part of the time the director and the file handler, the Court was willing to order the defendant to pay his costs on an indemnity basis.  In respect of the period in which the solicitor was — the fictions of corporations law aside — substantially self-represented, his costs were ordered to be assessed on the ordinary basis.   What McCallum J said in McMahon v John Fairfax Publications Pty Ltd (No 8) [2014] NSWSC 673 is:

Continue reading “Is solicitor-director of ILP which acted for him to be treated as self-represented?”

What does ‘pro bono’ mean? Are ‘semi-pro bono’ costs agreements legally efficacious?

Hidden away in Trkulja v Efron [2014] VSCA 76, at footnote 49, is a little dictum of the Chief Justice and Justice of Appeal Santamaria which explains their Honours’ understanding of the term ‘pro bono’:

‘In current legal practice, the expression ‘pro bono basis’ is understood to refer to the basis where a practitioner offers his or her services on a voluntary basis without any entitlement to or expectation of remuneration.’

Practitioners should, it seems to me, think carefully before describing themselves as acting ‘pro bono’ when their retainers provide for them to be paid out of the proceeds of a costs order made in favour of their client in litigation to be paid by their client’s opponent in the litigation.

There has been uncertainty in relation to the efficacy of a retainer which says ‘I will charge you $300 per hour but will seek to recover it from you only if you obtain an order that the other party pay your costs, and then I will only seek to recover my fees to the extent of the other side’s liability under the costs order’ or any variation of that concept.

The issue was that the indemnity principle requires total party-party costs to be no more than the liability of the person seeking the costs order to their own lawyers for costs.  If the liability depends on the making of a costs order, until the order is made, the liability is nil,  so that the indemnity principle precludes the making of the order in the first place (so the argument goes).   The latest important decision to endorse this reasoning, albeit in dicta, was King v King [2012] QCA 81.

Now if there is a principle which is properly described as ‘flexible’, it is the indemnity principle in costs law and it is a matter of surprise to me that the uncertainty has persisted so long given the obvious desirability from the perspective of access to justice to sanctioning such arrangements.

Happily, the Supreme Court of Queensland recently gave a decision this year which decided as a matter of ratio that an otherwise orthodox hourly rates costs agreement which included the following special condition was efficacious and did not offend against the indemnity principle:

‘No fees will be payable by you unless an order is made by the Supreme Court of Queensland in your favour for the payment of costs and those costs are recovered by us from other parties and any fees charged shall be limited to the amount of costs so recovered.’ Continue reading “What does ‘pro bono’ mean? Are ‘semi-pro bono’ costs agreements legally efficacious?”

Application to set aside costs agreements for disclosure defaults fails

A decision of the Supreme Court of Queensland has made clear what ought to be more obvious than it appears to be, namely that costs disclosure defaults will not result in the setting aside of a costs agreement in the absence of evidence that the non-disclosures had some effect on the client’s decision to enter into the costs agreement on the terms in fact adopted between the solicitor and client. Continue reading “Application to set aside costs agreements for disclosure defaults fails”

What do you need to plead in a suit for fees?

I have posted before about what needs to be pleaded in a modern suit for fees: see this post and the posts linked to within it.  Today I have come across a decision in which the failure to plead that which many people think need not be pleaded resulted in a semi-successful application to set aside a default judgment entered by a solicitor against a former client: Wiley v Ross Lawyers (14 February 2012) [2012] QCATA 22, a decision of Queensland’s equivalent of VCAT.  The lawyers had not pleaded a valid costs agreement or other basis for charging fees on the basis they were in fact charged, that there had been good service of a valid bill, or that there had been good service of a notice of rights.  Apart from these defects in the pleading, the evidence in support of the application to set aside the default judgment was not compelling.

The tribunal ordered that the application to set aside the default judgment was to succeed or fail depending on whether the lawyers filed an affidavit verifying compliance with chapter 3 of Part 3.4 of the Legal Profession Act 2007 (Qld), the part which deals with costs disclosure defaults.  I can only imagine that there are very many clients against whom lawyers have entered default judgments who are likely to be able to have them set aside as irregular, even years after the event, though the Queensland tribunal cases might be distinguished on the basis of the need to establish for jurisdictional reasons that what was being sued for was a debt or liquidated demand.  The member relied on a previous decision of the same tribunal (Morales v Murray Lyons Solicitors (a firm) [2010] QCATA 87) where the Deputy President, Judge Kingham agreed with the reasons of Member Mandikos, who said: Continue reading “What do you need to plead in a suit for fees?”

Value pricing

What follows are my rambling first thoughts about value pricing, penned without having read any of the leading treatises on the question, and without having read any sophisticated value pricing-based retainers.  I am most willing to be shown the nuances and possibilities overlooked in my preliminary explorations.  I am not wedded to any of the positions.  I put them up for discussion.  I think the hourly rate as currently applied is dreadful in many ways, but I have anxieties about how fixed fees and value billing would apply in practice outside the relatively even bargaining ground of major firms and major corporations’ in-house legal teams in which it seems often to be discussed.  I have this anxiety that it is not going to do anything to remedy the most basic problem causing the cost of access to justice to be too great, the rapacity of mediocre lawyers, and may in fact exacerbate it.  I suspect that well-drafted, well-regulated fixed fees will crap on the current regime, but think the current regime might be greatly improved, narrowing the gap. And I worry about the regulation of fixed fees, given our legal system’s prima facie reluctance to interfere in fairly negotiated contractual arrangements.  In other words, I worry that the sanctity of contract will inhibit the adjustment by the courts of fees rendered by lawyers to clients.

When I think of fixed fees, I tend to think of them in very simple terms: ‘I will do your case for $100,000, including disbursements and counsel’s fees.’  There is a tendency to think of the $100,000 as a cap, but in a simple agreement like this, the lawyer will get the fee if the other side dies and the cause of action dies with him, or the other side settles a few days into the retainer, or the client stumbles across a smoking gun which renders their prospects of victory at nil.  Galling as paying anyone $550 per hour for a job which may go on and on and on may be, paying someone $100,000 for next to nothing must be even more galling.  Of course value pricing retainers may be very sophisticated, and I am guilty of myopia.

There is also, I think, a tendency to think of fixed fees as giving certainty at the outset in a way unique to this method of charging.  In Victoria (and, I think, everywhere else in Australia), solicitors must by law estimate at or near the start of a matter its total costs — their fees, witness fees to be charged as disbursements, counsel’s fees, and other disbursements such as trial and transcript fees — or, if that is not practicable a range of the possible total costs. So clients should be entitled to be placed into the same position as the solicitor in terms of knowledge of how much their matter will cost, with the advantage of fixed fee being no more than the apportioning to the client the risk of the matter turning out to be simpler than the price justifies and to the solicitor the risk of it being more complex.

Because of the poverty of solicitors’ compliance with the obligation to give a good faith considered estimate of total costs at the outset (and the almost complete non-enforcement of the obligation), fixed fees represent a great improvement to clients who fix them in their interests.  But at least some of that improvement could be achieved by fixing the current system by enforcing the requirement for good faith carefully considered estimates of total costs, rather than moving to fixed fees.  Quite a bit more could be achieved by introducing penalties for solicitors who exceed estimated total fees without justification.  More again by stamping out fraud.  And I suspect that the very real practical advantage of fixed fees begins to diminish somewhat as soon as the fixed fee becomes a series of fixed fees, and subject to scopes of work such that disputes over variations assume all the difficulties of construction law, except that one party will be a lawyer who will not have to engage lawyers to have the dispute on his behalf.  Especially is that so in the case of the ad hoc user of legal services who have no commercial relationship with the lawyers within which to negotiate.

I have this anxiety that what fixed fees are really about is allowing lawyers to sell their learning (aka ‘intellectual capital’) for fees much greater than usual rates would allow for the time involved in solving the client’s problem, or advising or representing them.  This is where ‘value’ comes in, I worry: where the value of the lawyer’s services to the client exceeds the product of the lawyer’s time multiplied by usual fees, the client should be charged more to reflect the value to the client of the services.

And I think I have a problem with the entrepreneurial professional. No doubt some people think I am an entrepeneurial professional, what with my blog and all, but from time to time prospective clients inform me of their problem, I send them a seminar paper that covers what they know, and they get what they want with a few minutes of my time at no fee.  More often, I provide advice for a few hundred dollars which a non-expert charging on time would be likely to charge substantially more for.  I think of this as the upside of time based billing, a manifestation of the proposition of the profession as a public service.  I want to make a good living, but if I can assist without spending too much time, then I feel some sort of duty to do so.  Of course there is nothing about time billing which makes it inherently favourable to giving away your intellectual capital.  Value pricers can be kind too.  But I just get the impression that value pricing as a mindset will tell lawyers that they must charge a premium whenever a good chunk of their ‘intellectual capital’ is let loose. Continue reading “Value pricing”

Gross overcharging penalties surveyed

In Legal Profession Complaints Committee v PJO’H [2011] WASAT 95 (S), delivered on 20 February 2012 and not yet on Austlii, the Tribunal helpfully reviewed the penalties awarded in the gross overcharging cases over the years before suspending the respondent from practice for 6 months (the Committee wanted 18).  Two other things are notable about the case.  First, the Complaints Committee’s costs of the matter were $134,000 and were described as reasonable.  Second, the practitioner drafted his character witnesses’ evidence himself.  Didn’t go down well.  The decision was the work of a tribunal of three presided over by Justice Cheney.  Here’s the Tribunal’s survey:

‘In Re Veron; Ex parte Law Society (NSW) [1966] 84 WN (Pt 1) (NSW) 136, the practitioner was struck off following findings of some 65 instances of overcharging clients in respect of personal injury actions. The overcharging was found to be deliberate and there were related charges proved against the practitioner involving dishonesty or fraud in respect to the practitioner’s dealings with his clients and their money. Continue reading “Gross overcharging penalties surveyed”

Important new case on when retainer by multiple clients will be taken to be several rather than joint

I have always been a bit dubious about the proposition to be found in the texts that in the absence of specification one way or the other, a multiple retainer is presumed to be a several retainer (so that the clients are severally responsible for their fair share of the costs) rather than a joint retainer (so that the clients are each responsible for the whole of the costs associated with acting for either or both).  The South Australian Supreme Court has gone through the authorities and said that there is no presumption, but the onus of proving a joint retainer falls on the solicitor, and the mere fact that joint instructions are given or that representation advances joint interests is not sufficient to found an inferred agreement to that effect: D A Starke Pty Ltd v Yard [2012] SASC 19.

So: if you’re one of several clients your lawyer has in relation to one matter, and you want to limit your liability to your fair share of the costs, you should stipulate for ‘several liability’, and if you’re a lawyer, and want to be able to recover all of the costs from each client, you should stipulate for ‘joint and several liability’.  And if you’re one of a number of clients against whom a lawyer is seeking to recover fees, wherever the written costs agreement is silent on the question, then so long as you believe that it was not actually agreed between you, albeit by implication rather than express communication, you should not agree to pay anything more than your fair share, which might be 50% if the work benefitted each of the clients equally (as where husband and wife conduct litigation over jointly owned matrimonial property) but which might be quite different from the other client’s/s’ faire share, as in this case.

Two things occur to me.  First, in a joint retainer, one client may well be an associated third party payer vis-a-vis the lawyer in respect of that client’s promise to pay the other client’s fair share of the lawyer’s fees.  I cannot immediately think of how this might affect the solicitor-client relation, but no doubt it might.  Secondly, in a regime such as that under the Legal Profession Acts where costs agreements must be written or evidenced in writing, all the major terms of the agreement are required to fulfil that requirement.  This case was decided by reference to the law of the one state which does not have a Legal Profession Act (South Australia).  A lawyer seeking to rely on an implied term (and therefore one very likely not evidenced in writing) might have difficulty in establishing such a term by virtue of the writing requirements.

What the Supreme Court of South Australia’s Justice Kourakis said on this subject is set out below:

Continue reading “Important new case on when retainer by multiple clients will be taken to be several rather than joint”

Solicitors’ exposure to falling between two stools in solicitor-client taxations revealed

Update, 16.2.12: See now Ipex ITG Pty Ltd v McGarvie [2011] VSC 675.

Original post: A recent decision of the Supreme Court’s Costs Court means that solicitors have only a non-extendable 60 days in which to seek taxation of counsel’s fees, even though clients and third party payers have an extendable 12 months in which to seek taxation of the solicitors’ fees, including disbursements such as counsel’s fees: Kong v Henty Jepson & Kelly Pty Ltd, unreported, Associate Justice Wood, 4 April 2011.  The same result was reached in I.J.R. Homes v MDM Legal Services SCI, unreported, Associate Justice Wood, 12 September 2011, and the Costs Judge’s comments in that order are reproduced at the end of this post too.  Unless the barrister may be joined to and bound as against the solicitor to the outcome of the taxation of the solicitors’ fees initiated after the expiry of the time allowed to the solicitor for seeking taxation of the counsel’s fees, the solicitors run the risk of the client being liable to them only for the taxed down amount of counsel’s fees while the solicitors remain liable to the barrister for the full whack.

And the solicitor cannot get around the problem by seeking to procure their client to seek taxation of the counsel’s fees directly against counsel, because, the Supreme Court says, clients have no standing to do so.  Though the Court has a discretion under s. 3.4.42 to join ‘concerned law practices’ and order that they be bound by the outcome, it did not make such orders in the Kong Case joining the barrister, though for reasons peculiar to that case, the Court’s reluctance to do so may not be as great in future. All of that applies where the traditional relations between client, solicitor and counsel are entered into; where the client has a costs agreement with the barrister, things are different, and less problematic for solicitors.

But for the fact that solicitors tend to disregard the law of costs and carry on as they always have, no matter what the law is and how it is changed, four reactions might be expected in Victoria and the many other states with analogous statutory provisions:

1.   Solicitors will commence prophylactic applications for taxation of counsel’s fees within 60 days after service on them of the fee slip, in case the client later seeks to tax the solicitors’ bills (but they may well have to pay the costs of doing so out of their own pockets);

2.  Solicitors will require counsel to contract directly with clients in relation to fees, which many counsel will not be prepared to do;

3.  Solicitors might seek to contract out of clients’ rights to review counsel’s fees as disbursements on their bills, or to contract out of their rights to review counsel’s fees as disbursements on their bills, once their right to seek review of counsel’s fees has expired, but that is likely to be effective only where the clients and third party payers are ‘sophisticated’ within the s. 3.4.2 meaning of that term, since agreements about costs which purport to contract out of normal (as opposed to ‘sophisticated’) clients’ and/or third party payers’ rights to taxation are void: see ss. 3.4.26(5) and 3.4.31; or

4.  Solicitors might make it a term of their costs agreement with counsel that counsel indemnify the solicitors against any difference between the amount paid by the solicitors to the barrister and the amount payable by the client to the solicitors in respect of those same fees, but any such agreement would have to have a degree of sophistication, to avoid counsel taking the rap for a solicitor’s default (such as where counsel provide adequate information for the solicitor to provide disclosure of counsel’s fees to the client, but the solicitor fails to do so, with the result that the solicitor’s taxed costs, including disbursements such as counsel’s fees, are reduced under s. 3.4.17(4).

How are similar problems treated in other states’ and territories’ taxing and review jurisdictions?

Continue reading “Solicitors’ exposure to falling between two stools in solicitor-client taxations revealed”