Arbitrators slice $40 million off plaintiff lawyers’ breast implant proceedings fees

22 July Update: what may be the first ever legal blog, and without doubt one of the best, Overlawyered has  a link to the arbitrator’s ruling, and links to some old posts dealing with the interlocutory stages of the case. And here’s Law.com’s article.

Houston plaintiff lawyer John O’Quinn has been ordered to repay clients $40 million in legal fees after he was found to have charged his clients for bar association fees, overheads, and flowers as part of a ‘general expenses fee’ of 1.5% of the settlement. Ironically, his former clients ganged up on him. In a class action. They wanted all the fees he charged them back — estimated at $0.66 billion:

‘A Texas Supreme Court case from 1999 opened O’Quinn up to the possibility of having to pay back all the collected legal fees. That case, Burrow v. Arce, held that if a lawyer breaks his fiduciary duty to a client by putting his own interest above the client’s, he can lose part or all of his fee — even if the lawyer did a good job.’

I’ve noted that case before. Scary. Not that he got away without penalty, exactly:

‘The order says that O’Quinn, through three legal entities under which he has practiced law, must pay back [AU$12] million he improperly charged clients and a [AU$28.5] million penalty because he broke his contract with them.

Unconscionability and legal fee estimates, again

The law of unconscionable conduct has been rolled out again as a vehicle to adjust lawyers’ fees in the same way as they might be in a civil costs dispute under the Legal Profession Act, 2004, but in a case to which that Act’s regime did not apply. It has happened once before to my knowledge (see my previous post). In P&R v. Goodwin [2007] VCAT 1199, solicitors sued for their fees, but succeeded in obtaining an order only for the difference between the amount they estimated total legal fees to be at the start of the retainer, and the amount they had already been paid by the client. I do not think VCAT has jurisdiction in relation to disputes between lawyers and clients, because the jurisdiction is predicated on the engaging in of trade or commerce (VCAT has reserved on a test case in that regard). That aside, it is a relatively attractive forum in which to sue for fees. This decision may suggest that it is better to sue in a court, however, unless there is an unusual squeaky cleanliness in following the costs disclosure regime. Continue reading “Unconscionability and legal fee estimates, again”

Supreme Court authority on setting aside costs agreements

Update, 21 April 2008: see the decision on appeal: McNamara Business and Property Law v Kasmeridis [2007] SASC 90.

Original post: Kesmeridis v McNamara Business and Property Law [2006] SASC 200 is a decision of a Master of the Supreme Court of South Australia. Decisions in such applications in Victoria are heard by the members of VCAT’s Legal Practice List. The decision, and several related decisions, (i) say that a costs agreement reduced in writing need not be signed by both parties to be a contract in writing as required by the relevant statute, (ii) say that whether a costs agreement is “fair and reasonable” is to be determined by reference to pre-contract conduct, (iii) say that a discretion to charge a premium over and above an hourly rate is easily severable from a costs agreement and does not require the whole agreement to be set aside, and (iv) demonstrate that the courts’ distrust of hourly rate costs agreements is not waning with time.

Though the clients had been defendants in 35 proceedings before the relevant retainer and so “were not as ignorant of the legal system as they might have claimed”, the costs agreement was set aside in part because the solicitors had not explained to their prospective clients that there were other solicitors in Adelaide who would have been willing to do the same work on scale. Continue reading “Supreme Court authority on setting aside costs agreements”

VCAT has no jurisdiction over Family Court fee disputes

VCAT does not have jurisdiction over costs disputes in relation to Family Court cases or to state Magistrates’ Courts exercising the Family Court’s jurisdiction (except to the extent it is exercising jurisdiction under ss 35 or 35B of the Bankruptcy Act, 1966), but does have jurisdiction in relation to costs disputes in relation to Federal Magistrates’ Court proceedings under the Family Law Act, 1975. Continue reading “VCAT has no jurisdiction over Family Court fee disputes”

Winner gets indemnity costs but recovers less when loser proves winner’s costs agreement with his solicitors void

Casey v Quabba [2006] QCA 187

As reported in Lawyers Weekly, the Queensland Court of Appeal said the trial judge should have allowed the unsuccessful party in litigation to call for and challenge the validity of the successful party’s costs agreement with his solicitor in a party-party taxation of costs on an indemnity basis. Further, the judges found the successful party’s costs agreement was void for failure to specify the minimum requirements fora costs agreement, and ordered the costs to be taxed on the basis that there was no valid costs agreement (presumably by reference to the court scale). Don’t get too excited though; the case turned in part on the facts that (i) the taxing officer was directed by the rules of court to have regard, in indemnity costs taxations, to the costs agreement of the successful party, and (ii) the purpose of the Queensland provision was not only to benefit the client party to the agreement, but also to protect third parties affected, such as those against whom costs orders are made.

But I do wonder whether any thought was given by the successful party and the solicitors hastily putting together a valid agreement with retrospective operation. I can see no reason why it should not work.

Continue reading “Winner gets indemnity costs but recovers less when loser proves winner’s costs agreement with his solicitors void”

The new r. 3.4.3, Legal Profession Regulations, 2005 (Vic.)

Section 15 of the Legal Profession (Amendment) Regulations, 2007 inserted a new s. 3.4.3 into the Legal Profession Regulations, 2005 (Vic.). This is it, with my parenthesised interpolations:

3.4.3 Interest on unpaid legal costs

(1) This regulation is made for the purposes of section 3.4.21(4) of the [Legal Profession Act, 2004] and prescribes the rate of interest in excess of which a law practice may not charge interest under section 3.4.21 of the Act or under a costs agreement.

(2) The rate for the period commencing on and including the first commencement day and ending immediately before the second commencement day is the rate fixed under section 2 of the Penalty Interest Rates Act 1983 as at the relevant date.

(3) The rate for the period commencing on and including the second commencement day is the rate that is equal to the Cash Rate Target as at the relevant date, increased by 2 percentage points.

(4) In this regulation—

Cash Rate Target means the percentage (or maximum percentage) specified by the Reserve Bank of Australia as the Cash Rate Target;

first commencement day means the day on which regulation 15 of the Legal Profession (Amendment) Regulations 2007 comes into operation [r. 3(2) says reg 15 comes into force 6 months after the rest of the Regulations; r. 3(1) says the rest come into operation on the date they are made, which was 8 May 2007, so the first commencement day is 8 November 2007];

relevant date means the date the bill was issued by the law practice concerned;

second commencement day means the day that is 28 days after the first commencement day [6 December 2007].’