Phua’s Case (solicitors)  VCAT 2919 Costs dispute; s. 86 discount; regretted settlement
Phua’s Case (barrister)  VCAT 2918 Costs of hearing; immunity
Mrs Phua was alleged to have stolen from her employer. Mr Phua admitted complicitly and made restitution. The employer commenced Magistrates’ Court proceedings. The Phuas defended and counterclaimed for wages and travelling expenses. Then they retained the solicitors in February, briefing them with tape recordings of a police interview. Mrs Phua was subsequently charged and convicted in October, but the solicitors did not act in those proceedings which resulted in a bond and an order to make restitution of a further $7,500 or so. It seems the solicitors acted in the counterclaim, the civil proceedings having been perhaps overtaken by the restitution order in the criminal proceedings. It settled on the afternoon of the first day’s hearing, 11 months into the retainer (quaere the date in  is wrong).
The solicitor’s estimate of future costs under s. 86 of the Legal Practice Act, 1996 was $3,500 for costs and disbursements. In fact they charged $1,100 more than that. They had charged twice for one letter, and the duplication was disallowed.
Phua’s claim was that he settled “only because counsel for the emplolyer insisted that provision of [certain pieces of documentary evidence] at such a late stage would cause the hearing to enter a second day, with the consequential increase in legal costs”. The claim for compensation was dismissed on the basis that the evidence other than that which was not discovered until the day of the trial could not have been completed on that day anyway.
Mr Howell referred to the understimate by $1,100 as “a signifcant amount” but did nothing about it. He characterised the breach as one of failing to advise changes to the original estimate promptly, and noted that before the trial, Phua knew what the costs would be. Though it was “rather late for [the solicitors] to be asking for counsel’s fees and thus, in substance, to be changing the estimate” he was not satisfied “that the delay in changing the estimate was of a sufficient degree of seriousness to warrant the reduction of the accounts”. So Phua was awarded the grand sum of $19.60. The barrister who was also sued was immune from suit because advice as to settlement during a trial is immune: Biggar v McLeod; Kelley v Corston. He did not get costs “but only because” he did not claim the immunity prior to the hearing.
The parties were unrepresented. Alan Hebb was for the Tribunal.