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LEGAL COSTS: Ask your solicitor ten questions about costs before your legal expenses run up thousands in unnecessary work & bills – or result in your lawyer taking your home & savings to pay for it

10 Nov

Questions to ask your solicitor – walk if you don’t like the replies. IN SCOTLAND, there are few, if any non lawyer controlled sources of advice to legal services consumers on how to manage client relationships with solicitors, how to control legal costs, and what to do when something goes wrong and your lawyer rips you off.

Client protection – is a myth. Given three decades of evidence that thousands of clients have been ripped off every year by their once trusted solicitors, the only people who believe a complaints system run by lawyers, managed by lawyers and protected by lawyers –  are fantasists, and the Law Society of Scotland.

There are no background record checks available on Scottish solicitors, and the only ‘help’ on offer to clients when their relationship with their solicitor breaks down – is provided by the pro-lawyer Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC), a regulator backed by the Law Society of Scotland, staffed by members of the Law Society of Scotland. You get the picture.

However, in England & Wales, the landscape is a little more consumer friendly, with the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) and Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) providing a more independent form of advice and help to consumers.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority also publish complaints and regulatory data on solicitors and law firms – a must have service for anyone considering using a solicitor which does not currently exist in Scotland.

As things currently stand in Scotland – if you are unable to check up on your solicitor’s regulatory history via an independent source, the best advice is to walk away – or what happens next is your own fault.

Self regulation by lawyers, pleas to the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament for help will not put right your legal problems or what your solicitor did to you.

A handy guide published by the Legal Ombudsman, reprinted by DOI in this article, gives a list of ten questions consumers and clients of solicitors should ask their legal representatives before taking on representation and expensive legal services.

There are further tips in the full LeO leaflet, so please download it and read thoroughly before engaging legal representation.

This guide was written for the English legal services market, and you may be an English reader, so go right ahead and ask you solicitor these ten basic questions on costs.

However, the same questions apply as much in Scotland as anywhere else –  and anyone using a Scottish solicitor should consider asking these same questions.

If you don’t like the answers you receive, or don’t get any answers at all – then the best consumer advice possible is to protect yourself and walk away.

At the very least, you will have saved yourself hundreds, or thousands or tens of thousands of pounds for something involving a lawyer which may well have ended up going wrong anyway.

Why put yourselves through a five year heartache losing your savings to a lawyer, when ten little questions and answers may save you a whole lot of trouble.

The introduction to the leaflet from the Legal Ombudsman states: “If you use a lawyer, he or she should talk to you about the cost of their services. But you should also understand their charges. We have come up with ten questions to ask your lawyer about the cost of your service. We’ve also included some top tips and explained the terms used to help you get the most from conversations with lawyers about costs.

As a consumer, you have the right to expect your lawyer to be clear about how much they are likely to charge you, and for the final bill to be clearly explained and in the range you expected.

Legal services can be complex and the final cost can depend on things such as the type of service, individual details of the case, and how events develop. The expertise and experience of the lawyer may affect things too. However, most services are straightforward and your lawyer should give you a clear idea of what you will be charged from the start. Even if things do get complicated, your lawyer should warn you when this happens, so there shouldn’t be any surprises in your final bill.

A lawyer who values good service will happily answer your cost-related questions. Lawyers also have a duty to provide you with a client care letter when you appoint them. This letter should clearly explain the costs for the service and any terms and conditions that may affect the final price.”

Question 1  Will I be charged for a consultation?

Finding the lawyer who is right for you and the service you need is important. A consultation by phone, face-to-face, letter or online can help you make your decision. A lawyer can charge you for a consultation but they should tell you before you book and explain any conditions. For example, they may offer the first 30 minutes free but charge for time above that.

A lawyer should speak to you about costs and provide the best possible information so you can make an informed choice.

If you have a consultation, make the most of the opportunity. Do your research to find the right lawyer – you can check online, talk to friends and family, or speak to consumer organisations to help you make your choice.

Question 2  “How do you cost your service?”

This question can help you shop around to get best value for money. Two lawyers may provide very different estimates for the same service. Understanding why the quotes differ can help you make the right decision. For example, one lawyer may be more experienced or an expert in the area of law your case involves. If you have a complex case, you might think it’s better to pay more as it may improve the outcome and cost you less in the long run. With a fairly simple case you might decide you don’t need that level of expertise, so it may be better value to go with the cheaper estimate.

Experience and skill are just two reasons why costs may differ. There are now more ways than ever to provide a legal service which can have an impact on what you pay. For example, you can now buy services that are phone or web based rather than face-to-face. Providers who offer this type of service may save on rent and backroom costs and might therefore offer a cheaper price to customers. Understanding if this type of service works for you will help you decide if it is, or isn’t, value for money.

Estimates may vary for a whole host of reasons. Ask questions until you understand enough about the services on offer so you can pick one that suits you.

Question 3 “Can you tell me more about the way you charge?”

Lawyers have different ways of charging and their charging method may also vary according to the service. For example, they may offer a fixed fee for writing a will, but an hourly rate for a probate service (the administration of a will when someone has died). Find out what charging method the lawyer will use and ask them to explain it to you in detail. Questions 4 and 5 help with understanding fixed fee and hourly rate charges.

Conditional fee arrangements (CFAs) are also known as ‘no win, no fee’ arrangements. If you lose, you won’t, in general, have to pay your lawyer’s fees, but may need to pay some out of pocket expenses such as barrister’s fees or court fees. You may also be liable to pay some of the other side’s costs but it is possible to get insurance to protect against this. If you win, you will have to pay your lawyer’s fees and in addition there is usually a success fee which is intended to cover the risk that the firm are entering into with this type of agreement. You should in most cases, however, be able to recover your fees (including any success fee) from the other side. If you are thinking about entering into one of these arrangements, make sure you ask detailed questions so that you fully understand the terms and conditions.

Contingency fee agreements are also a type of ‘no win no fee’ agreement. If your lawyer agrees to represent you under a contingency fee agreement — which should not be confused with a conditional fee arrangement – they will be able to claim a percentage of any money they win on your behalf plus expenses. If you lose the case, you won’t be charged a fee, but you might still have to pay other costs (which could include the other side’s legal costs too).

The contingency fee percentage must be agreed in advance. You should also check whether the lawyer will deduct any expenses before they take their contingency fee or after as this can make a significant difference to the amount you finally receive. If the percentage you are asked to pay is very high, you could end up with very little – even if you win.

Question 4 “What is a fixed fee and what does it cover?  Will I be charged for any other costs?

The term ‘fixed fee’ can be used in different ways. It can be easy to assume that it covers all costs for the service you need. In some cases that may be true, but it may also just refer to the lawyer’s fees. For example, a ‘fixed fee’ in a property case may, or may not, include charges related to searches. Sometimes a lawyer may offer a ‘fixed fee’ for a stage of the case, so don’t feel embarrassed about asking your lawyer exactly what they mean by ‘fixed fee’. It’s not a silly question; the term isn’t self-explanatory.

Lawyers will sometimes give you an estimate of the costs. This isn’t the same as a ‘fixed fee’, so check what your lawyer means. This can be important as sometimes a lawyer may charge a fixed fee for a particular stage but give an estimate for the next stage. If that happens, or you aren’t sure, check what your lawyer means and ask for an estimate for the total cost of the case.

Question 5  “You charge an hourly rate but I’d like an estimate for the cost of the whole service. What will my final bill look like?”

If your lawyer charges an hourly rate, they must give you an estimate of how much the overall service will be. This should compare reasonably with your final bill. If you aren’t sure, then ask your lawyer to give you an estimate for the whole service. Sometimes it can be hard to predict how much it will all cost. Ask so you know how certain the estimate is. Having a range of costs might be more helpful than a single number, which could shift up or down. The important thing is to understand how much the total bill could be.

You are entitled to ask the lawyer to set a limit on the costs. This means your lawyer has to check that you are happy to continue if the spend approaches the agreed threshold. Setting a limit can help you make sure you don’t spend more than you can afford.

Ask questions to understand exactly when the clock starts. For example, if you call your lawyer for an update on your case will you be charged for the call? Ask if, and how, your lawyer rounds up their charges. Many lawyers charge in six minute blocks – check if that’s how your lawyer works. Make sure you feel comfortable with the way they charge.

As with ‘fixed fees’, ask if there are any other costs that won’t be covered in the hourly rate.

Question 6 “Could my costs change? How will you let me know if they do?”

There may be circumstances where costs do change. This is most likely if new information or developments make a case more difficult. For example, in a divorce case much is dependent on the other person’s cooperation to resolve it quickly. Even if both people intend to behave amicably, sometimes that resolve breaks down. If your costs look like they are changing, ask your lawyer about it. In general, your lawyer should tell you as soon as they are aware of any changes, but you don’t have to wait to ask for an explanation. Another option is to ask, when you choose your lawyer, if their original estimate is likely to be breached. If you have agreed a spending limit (see question 5), then your lawyer should stop work until you confirm that you want to continue.

If a case gets complicated even a ‘fixed fee’ arrangement can change. Your lawyer should explain when this might happen and also set out the terms and conditions in your client care letter. Make sure you understand and ask if there is a ‘get out’ clause to say if additional costs can be charged.

Remember, you always have options, even in the middle of a legal transaction. If there is a big hike in the costs of using a lawyer, then your lawyer should tell you about them and let you know what your options are. You could use a different specialist who might cost less but take longer, or only use email to contact your lawyer. There might also be some stages in the process that can be missed out. Ask your lawyer how you can work with them to reduce costs.

Question 7 Are there any extra costs?

This really is a catch-all question to help you budget for your service. You are basically asking your lawyer if they have given you all the information they reasonably can to make sure there aren’t any nasty surprises in the future. Examples of the sort of information this question might raise are additional costs for things like expert reports (such as from a doctor), or photocopying. Some firms use premium rate phone numbers, which could add unexpected costs to the final amount you spend for your service. Use these examples as a prompt to discuss this issue. Your lawyer should also tell you if you are likely to incur any bank charges. For example, you might need to make a CHAPs payment (same day electronic transfer) which can cost over £20 in a property transaction.

Finally, don’t forget to check if your estimate is inclusive of VAT. Your lawyer should tell you, but check so that you don’t get a higher bill than you’re expecting.

Question 8 “Can I get help with the cost of my legal service?”

A lawyer should always talk to you about how the service will be paid for and discuss options such as insurance or membership of a union that might help cover the costs. There can be some fine-print with different insurance options that you need to understand, so ask lots of questions to make sure you know what you are signing up to. Some insurances, like ‘after the event’ or ‘before the event’ insurance, could cover you for some things but not for others. Ask your lawyer for more information.

If you receive benefits or are on a low income you might qualify for help that may reduce or cover all of your costs. There are different programmes for different types of help but the best known is legal aid, which provides free legal advice from lawyers who are registered with the service. Even if your lawyer isn’t registered to provide legal aid they should tell you about it so you have the option of going to a lawyer who can.

Question 9 “When will I be billed and how long will I have to pay? Do you offer payment options?”

A lawyer should give you clear information on their billing process and offer reasonable time for you to make payments. They should also let you know if there are penalty charges if you don’t pay on time. You may be asked to pay some money at the start either to cover certain expenses or as an advance payment of fees. Lawyers aren’t obliged to offer you payment options, but some may be willing to negotiate. Asking the question might help you find a lawyer whose service fits your personal circumstances.

Question 10 “What happens if I disagree with the amount I’ve been charged?”

Your lawyer should tell you their approach to resolving billing disagreements. Every lawyer should have a complaints handling system in place, so find out how their system works. You should not be charged by a lawyer for looking at your complaint – it is very poor service if they do. When you appoint a lawyer they are also obliged to let you know about the Legal Ombudsman who can help you to resolve your complaint if you and your lawyer can’t reach an agreement.

Note – if you disagree with legal bills in Scotland, cases have revealed solicitors often employ threats and legal action for demands to be met within seven days. In some cases solicitors have applied to sequestrate their clients for disagreements on legal bills, and willing, compliant local sheriff courts staffed by familiar clerks and members of the judiciary often grant such orders with little regard for the facts or any representations from clients who question the integrity of legal fees.

SCOTLAND – Consumer protection against rogue solicitors and law firms does not exist.

How bad is the Law Society of Scotland when it comes to protecting consumers? The answer is  very bad. The Law Society of Scotland is a lobby group for the legal profession which puts lawyers interests first, before clients, the public, or anyone else. Do not expect client protection from a system where lawyers regulate themselves.

Read previous articles on the Law Society of Scotland here: Law Society of Scotland – A history of control of the legal profession, and no client protection.

Previous reports on the Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal – The pro-lawyer tribunal which determines ‘punishments’ for solicitors after complaints have endured an eternity at the Law Society & SLCC, can be found here: Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal – Pro-lawyer protection against client complaints

Previous media investigations, reports and coverage of issues relating to the pro-lawyer Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC) can be found here: Scottish Legal Complaints Commission – A history of pro-lawyer regulation.

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