Hidden away in Trkulja v Efron  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  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?”