The Costs Court

I have been remiss in not bringing to your attention the creation of the Costs Court, which came into operation at the beginning of this year.  It is in fact not really a new Court, in the sense that it is just a revamped division of the Supreme Court.  But the development means that the number of dedicated costs decision makers in the Supreme Court has increased from one to three. It heralds a new era in the hitherto fragmented, inconsistent and arcane world of legal costs.  The air of change is enhanced by the relatively recent change of guard at the top from long-time and generally well-loved incumbent, Master Tom Bruce as Taxing Master to Associate Justice Jamie Wood as Costs Judge.

Greater consistency between decisions in relation to costs in the different state courts and VCAT will be promoted by all their taxations being conducted by the one new institution, in the same place, under the ultimate control of the Costs Judge.  The County Court’s former taxing officers have become Registrars.  They used to do taxations of Magistrates’ Court cost orders as well, and the new reality is that no more taxations will be conducted by officers of VCAT, the Magistrates’ Court, or the County Court.  That is not to say, of course, that VCAT members, Magistrates and County Court judges, will not fix costs summarily by reference to the appropriate scale at the end of a case though. But I can’t think of a decision maker who relishes fixing costs, and the temptation to leave it to the Costs Court may mean judges and Magistrates fix costs less.

There is an anomaly which should be cured. VCAT will continue to hear applications to set aside costs agreements, and ‘costs disputes’ under the Legal Profession Act, 2004, in relation to disputes over fees in matters where the total costs are not more than $25,000, whereas solicitor-client taxations (which are often stayed pending, for example, the result of applications to set aside costs agreements) are carried out by the Costs Court.  It would seem appropriate to me for those jurisdictions to be brought into the Costs Court, and re-built into one stand-alone system for the resolution of solicitor-client disputes over fees, to operate under one statute (e.g. the Legal Profession Act, 2004) rather than the present jumble of that Act, the Supreme Court Rules, 2005 the Supreme Court Act, 1986, the VCAT Act, 1998 and the Fair Trading Act, 1999.  The wealth of experience of the members of the old Legal Profession Tribunal, now VCAT’s Legal Practice List, could and should be brought into the Costs Court.

Here is Practice Note no. 7 of 2010, about the Costs Court.  The Costs Judge’s associate is Sean Linehan whose numbers are 9603 9324 and 9603 9320.

Section 17D(3) of the Supreme Court Act, 1986 now provides that the Costs Court ‘must exercise its jurisdiction with as little formality and technicality, and with as much expedition, as the requirements of this Act, the Rules and the proper consideration of the matters before the Court permit’.  Another innovation is that the Costs Court is newly empowered to give on the papers estimates of the amount a bill is likely to tax at, which may be made into an order if no objection is raised by either party within 21 days: see Part 8 of Order 63: new rules 63.86 – 63.89.  The Federal Court has been doing so for years, a service much appreciated by practitioners.

Continue reading “The Costs Court”

What is a ‘lump sum bill’?

In the law of legal costs, there has long been a distinction between a lump sum bill, of the kind generally given in the first instance by solicitors to clients with whom they have an ongoing working relationship, and an itemized bill which is usually given if a client wants a bit more detail in relation to how the hell legal costs could possibly have blown out to the amount stated in the lump sum bill.  Where the solicitor-client relationship is under a fair bit of strain, or has broken down, itemized bills are sometimes given in the first instance.  They were, and sometimes still are, known also as bills of costs in taxable form.  There is quite a bit of law on what is necessary for a bill to qualify as an itemized bill, but not all that much about what is necessary to qualify as a lump sum bill.  The difficulty is exacerbated by the lack of definition of ‘lump sum bill’ in s. 61 of the Supreme Court Act, 1986 or its successors the Legal Practice Act, 1996 or the Legal Profession Act, 2004.

My friend Richard Antill gave me an old decision of the Supreme Court of Victoria on the question, Stevens v Keogh, unreported, 3 December 1996, Justice McDonald.  Contact me if you would like a copy. A solicitor sued his client for fees. The client defended, called no evidence at trial, and successfully contended that the solicitor’s evidence disclosed no case to answer.  The letter under cover of which the controversial bills was given said:

‘I confirm that at our first meeting I stated that my charge would be at the rate of $150 per hour or pro rata per part.  Accordingly my account simply lists the times spent on the work for you’.

The bill itself said:

Continue reading “What is a ‘lump sum bill’?”

No taxations of old-Act hourly rates costs agreements

The Legal Practice Act, 1996 still governs costs agreements in matters where instructions were first given prior to 12 December 2005 and bills rendered pursuant to them, even after that date, which was the commencement date for the Legal Profession Act, 2004: see cl.  3.1(1) of the second schedule to the Legal Profession Act, 2004.  A curiosity of the old Act is that bills rendered pursuant to costs agreements which provided for fees to be charged at hourly rates were not amenable to solicitor-client taxations by the Taxing Master.  Disputes in relation to fees where the total fees (rather than the disputed fees) did not exceed $15,000 could be dealt with by VCAT, but otherwise, clients were left to dispute the bills in a suit for fees.  Though all competent costs lawyers are aware of this proposition, authority published online for it is surprisingly scant.  Only last year did VCAT’s Legal Practice List say squarely (but in respect of the old Act):

‘the Taxing Master cannot assess costs that have been charged pursuant to a costs agreement with time-based charges.’

It was Senior Member Vassie who said so in Leong v Sesto [2009] VCAT 99 in that part of his decision headed ‘The Law: What Costs Agreements are Subject to Assessment’ at [105]ff, drawing support from Justice Beach’s decision in Gaweda v Shaw [1999] VSC 474.

Termination of a no-win no-fee retainer

Mr Burmingham is the subject of three posts already.  They dealt with three discrete aspects of his case, Maurice B Pty Ltd v Burmingham [2009] VSC 20: a titillating detail, advocates’ immunity, and the nature of the suit for fees.  But his case was really mostly about what happens when a no-win no-fee costs agreement is terminated before the end of the case.  Of course, it all depends on what the costs agreement says, and this costs agreement was presumably the result of many years’ honing by one of Australia’s foremost plaintiff firms.  Justice Byrne was not complimentary of the draftsmen (nor of the court book’s reverse chronological order, a bugbear of my own).  But in the end, the lawyers got their fees even though they did not obtain a successful result for Mr Burmingham. Continue reading “Termination of a no-win no-fee retainer”

The suit for fees

One might imagine the suit for fees to be the simplest legal claim there is.  But there seems to be great confusion about what the elements of the claim are,  what defences are available, and the relationship of the suit with a taxation, or the failure to exercise a right of taxation. If anyone has any contributions to the mysteries referred to below, I would be happy to hear them. Continue reading “The suit for fees”

Lawyers and the criminal law

Reproduced below is a blog post about ‘bill padding’ from the US site, Legal Blog Watch. That is where lawyers say work took them longer than it really did, and so charge commensurately more, or even make up the fact that they did work, and charge for it. Sometimes I read articles like this and wonder whether lawyers don’t think they live in a different world where, if they commit crimes, what will happen to them is that they will be dealt with by professional discipline. They think that, or course, because it’s more or less true, unless you get caught stealing from your trust account.  But the criminality of time sheet crime should not be allowed to be buried under anodyne euphemisms. ‘Bill padding’ sounds kind of cute, a necessary evil. It is a kind of newspeak. Time to do away with it. Let’s call it ‘rapacity fraud’.  It is tolerated by the profession in this sense.  There are generalised allegations of widespread bill padding.  Talk privately to costs consultants and they will tell you all about it.   But I have never heard of a firm which has even basic anti-fraud procedures to detect the practice.

My point kind of makes itself when the author says ‘allegations of bill padding … drew … strong criticism about the practice from legal ethics experts’.  Experts say fraud is bad?  Well shit Sherlock!  The 9th commandment does kind of feature relatively prominently in most systems of law.  We’re going to have the case one day when someone actually subpoenas a firm’s electronic billing system and its metadata, and diaries, analyses when the billing entries were made, and cross-examines lawyers on how they could have billed 180 units in a day and still made it to the client function at 6 p.m., or why, having billed relatively consistently every day, they would suddenly remember on the 30th of the month some comparatively vaguely described units they had forgotten to record mid-month, or why given that they had used a precedent for similar documents three times previously in the same month, they decided to draft the document from scratch, only to end up with — you guessed it — the same document as the precedent.  Now, that article: Continue reading “Lawyers and the criminal law”

Once the time for taxation runs out, the solicitor can sue on the bill as a simple debt

I have never been quite clear about what you have to prove in a suit for fees. I was attracted to the proposition that if a client wants to go through a bill item by item, the place to do that is in a taxation, and if they do not go down that path, or they can’t because they’re out of time, then no challenge of the kind typical of a taxation ought to be allowed in the suit for fees, that is, that the bill may be sued on as a debt due and owing. But I was never entirely confident about it.

The Full Legal Profession Tribunal’s 16 June 2000 decision in B v Home Wilkinson Lowry [1999] VLPT 1 is authority for many things (principally that state tribunals like VCAT have no jurisdiction over the costs of Family Court proceedings), and seems to be authority too for the proposition which attracted me. Continue reading “Once the time for taxation runs out, the solicitor can sue on the bill as a simple debt”

Solicitor gets away with fees of $83,000 after estimating at $2,500 and never updating

Ok, ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the solicitor did put out a costs agreement and fee disclosure document which contained no estimate other than $2,500, and did charge $111,000, which was reduced on an assessment — a NSW privatised version of taxation — and did not provide any re-estimates before putting out the first bill for $88,000. Savings Factory Pty Ltd v Daniel [2007] NSWSC 1343 is a useful case to illustrate that failure to comply with costs disclosure regimes is not the end of the world for lawyers. You just have to get the costs taxed at your expense.  Justice Palmer held that the estimate was just an estimate, and was confined to one part of the work which was to be the subject of the retainer (no estimates were provided in respect of the other work).  Here, the client maintained the solicitor’s retainer long after receiving the initial bill.

The case also illustrates another principle which you would think lawyers would get fairly readily, but which, sadly, we don’t.  It is that you can’t just put your rates up whenever you feel like it.  One reason why about 20% was taxed off the bills was that the lawyer’s rates were allowed only at the rate originally provided for under the costs agreement.

Unrepresented barristers’ entitlement to costs in cases involving them personally

In Winn v GHB [2007] VSC 360, a barrister was personally a party in some litigation. She was admitted in Victoria but at the relevant time was practising in Brisbane under a Queensland practising certificate. She taxed her solicitors’ fees, and acted for herself. She appealed successfully from the order of the Taxing Master. She successfully sought an order for costs, but the only costs she was entitled to were costs of travelling to and from Victoria from Queensland for the hearings because the exception to the rule that unrepresented litigants are not entitled to costs except for out of pocket expenses applies only to solicitors and does not extend to barristers. Continue reading “Unrepresented barristers’ entitlement to costs in cases involving them personally”

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.

Man sues lawyer for declaration in reverse suit for fees

A client sued his former solicitor in VCAT for a declaration that no fees were owing because of costs disclosure defaults by the solicitor. Member Butcher stayed the proceeding pending taxation by the Supreme Court’s Taxing Master on the basis that the sending of a cost disclosure statement at the same time as the work done — in this case a letter of advice — was a default under the Act with the result that the fees were not payable until taxed by the Supreme Court at the solicitor’s expense. He also found that in those circumstances, no costs agreement had come into existence; the offer was made after the performance of the solicitor’s obligations under it. Continue reading “Man sues lawyer for declaration in reverse suit for fees”

How not to bill; how not to deal with a fee dispute; the story of a Yank lawyer

Courtesy of Justinian, I bring you the story of the overcharging New Jersey lawyer who charged like this:

“With regard to the fee, he purportedly spent entire days, sometimes eight or nine hours per day, for several days in a row, apparently in ‘lockdown’ — researching, reviewing and negotiating issues that had little or no bearing on the substance of the transaction. Further, respondent presented nothing to substantiate the time charges underlying the bill. Nothing in the record refuted Ferwerda’s compelling testimony that respondent’s services should have been limited to review of the SBA loan documents, an unalterable lease agreement, and the franchise agreement, itself a non-negotiable contract.”

Then, when the client hesitated before paying the $50,000 bill, he:

“threatened her with criminal prosecution for “theft of services” and he didn’t stop there: He also warned that she might lose her business, her home and her professional license.”

She went to another lawyer, who instituted a fee arbitration. The first lawyer settled by waiving his fee, all the time contending he was perfectly entitled to it. When he was charged with gross overcharging and intimidatory conduct, he failed to appear at the hearing, earning himself a break for 6 months.

Litigant’s right to recover fees of interstate lawyer under costs order

Update: now reported at (2007) 237 ALR 802 

This little problem gives rise to ridiculous complexities. In Cannon Street Pty Ltd v Karedis [2006] QCA 541, the Queensland Court of Appeal upheld Justice White’s decision to allow, as party party costs, work done for the successful party by Clayton Utz Sydney in relation to trial of the matter in the Supreme Court of Queensland, despite a parochial provision in the local Supreme Court Act, 1995 (s. 209) which said “A person who is not a barrister or solicitor of the Supreme Court shall not be entitled to claim or recover or receive directly or indirectly a sum of money or other remuneration for appearing or acting on behalf of another person in the Supreme Court”. That the Court had been exercising federal jurisdiction seems to have been significant. I have only glanced at the decision. Another recent case to consider similar issues is Santos Ltd v Delhi Petroleum Pty Ltd [2005] SASC 242.

Can the taxing master decide professional negligence claims?

Update, 3 April 2009: It’s still going: Winn v GHB [2009] VSC 93.

Original post: In Winn v GHB [2006] VSC 476, Winn won, another victory for a pro se litigant against their former solicitors, though it seems this former teacher has recently joined the Queensland bar, which suggests she was at something of an advantage over your average punter in unravelling the arcane intricacies of the Supreme Court’s taxing court. Justice Kaye considered whether the Taxing Master was empowered to tax items off a bill of costs in taxable form on a solicitor-client taxation on the basis of professional negligence, and if so, when the process of doing so ought to stop in favour of a properly constituted professional negligence proceeding. His answers? Yes, and it’s a question of degree. Continue reading “Can the taxing master decide professional negligence claims?”

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”