The top 5 ways your solicitor rips you off

What do you think of the title to this post? Does it catch your attention? Admittedly it is not blessed with the same power and venom possessed by the phrase “Enemies of the People” but it both catches the attention and has power to shock.

However the title was not  devised by me. Rather it reflects the a marketing wheeze devised by a company that had spotted a perceived gap in the market for advice  in relation to solicitor-own client assessments under the Solicitors Act 1974. The aggressive tone of the advertisement led to a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority, which was upheld: you can read the report here: https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/practice/-your-solicitor-rips-you-off–cmc-told-to-pull-provocative-ad/5055869.article

The accompanying video to the advertisement still lingers palely (and amusingly) in cyberspace on Youtube, with an earnest presenter providing an explanation of what wicked creatures solicitors are.

In truth few professions are more regulated than the legal profession, and rightly so given the quasi-monopoly it has over litigation and the need to ensure that the public interest is protected.

The history of regulation and in particular constraints upon what lawyers may charge their clients is long and goes back centuries before the enactment of the Solicitors Act 1974.

A fairly basic safeguard, is a statutory requirement that when a solicitor levies a bill, upon which they may take legal action if it is not paid, that bill must contain a sufficient narrative of what work has been done, and what the client is being charged for, so that it constitutes a “proper” bill. Unless and until such a bill is served, no action can be brought.

As noted in the case of Ralph Hume Garry v Gwillim [2002] EWCA Civ 2002 the origins of the requirement that a solicitors bill should have a narrative, can be traced back to Georgian times and the Act for the better Regulation of Attorneys and Solicitors, 1729, 2 Geo. II. c 23, section 23

As early as that time there had been a bar on the solicitor commencing action until the expiration of one month from the delivery of his bill and there were provisions, slightly different provisions it has to be emphasised , for the taxation of that bill. Even then the bill had to be properly delivered and “subscribed with the proper hand of such attorney or solicitor”. The content of the bill received a little more clarification than has since appeared in that it was prescribed that the bill should be:−

“Written in a common legible Hand and in the English Tongue (except Law Terms and Names of Writs) and in Words at length (except Times and Sums) ×”

That may explain the practice of having a narrative account of the work done.

That Act was succeeded by the Solicitors Act 1843 which provided in section 37 as follows:

“No solicitor shall commence or maintain any action or suit for the recovery of any fees, charges, or disbursements for any business done by such × solicitor, until the expiration of one month after such × solicitor × shall have delivered unto the party to be charged therewith × a bill of such fees, charges, and disbursements, and which bill shall either be subscribed with the proper hand of such × solicitor, (or, in the case of a partnership, by any of the partners.

….

Provided also, that it shall not in any case be necessary in the first instance for such solicitor  in proving a compliance with this Act, to prove the contents of the bill he may have delivered, sent, or left, but it shall be sufficient to prove that a bill of fees, charges, or disbursements, subscribed in the manner aforesaid, or enclosed in or accompanied by such letter as aforesaid, was delivered, sent, or left in the manner aforesaid; but nevertheless it shall be competent for the other party to show that the bill so delivered, sent, or left was not such a bill as constituted a bona fide compliance with this Act “

Section 37 gave rise to some titanic battles in the Victorian courts about the taxation of solicitors bills. Keene v Ward (1849) 13 Q.B. 513. That was an action by the solicitors under a bill which contained charges in respect of nine actions in the Court of Exchequer and two in the Common Pleas. It also contained items in respect of two other actions as to one of which the parties were named and the bill was itemised to state, for example, “Instructions to sue 3s. 4d., writ of summons 12s. 6d”. The final charges in the bill did not identify at whose suit the defendant was the client and contained the fascinating description:−

“Attending you on your informing an action had been brought against you, and as to possibility of throwing it over the Long Vacation; and you were to bring me the writ and notice of declaration × 6s.8d.

The defendant objected to the bill submitting it did not satisfy the requisites of section 37. The argument was that because the bill did not state the court to which the business related, no−one could advise as to the taxation of those parts of the bill and if the bill could not be referred for taxation, it was insufficient. Patteson J. delivering the judgment of the court held:−

“In requiring the delivery of an attorney’s bill, the legislature intended that the client should have sufficient materials for obtaining advice as to taxation: and we think that we fulfil that intention by holding the present bill sufficient within that principle: whereas, if we required in respect of every item a precise exactness of form, we should go beyond the words and meaning of the statute, and should give facilities to dishonest clients to defeat just claims upon a pretence of a defect of form in respect of which they had no real interest.

The next case of interest was Cook v Gillard (1852) 1 E. & B. 26. Here the solicitor Mr Cook delivered a bill to his client divided into four parts. The first part was headed “Yourself and Ransom”. It consisted of a charge for attending the defendant and consulting as to slanderous reports; and then, under a fresh head, “Hilary Term 1846”, there were charges for “Letter before action”, “Instructions to sue”, “Writ of summons”, and “Attending settling”. The amount of the first part of the bill was £2. 19s. 8d. Except insofar as might be inferred from the items quoted there was nothing to show whether the suit of Gillard v Ransom had been pending in any, or which, of the superior courts. The second part of the bill related to conducting the defence of a case at the Middlesex Quarter Sessions and the third part for conducting a prosecution there. The fourth part of the bill was headed “Yourself and Mrs Heydeman”. It contained charges for taking the opinion of counsel on the construction of an agreement, various charges for collecting evidence and making enquiries at Hatton Garden, Tottenham Court Road, and other places well known to be in Middlesex, but which were not stated on the face of the bill to be there; for “Instructions to sue in an action on the case”; for “Writ” and “Service”; for attending in court when on motion by counsel “A rule was made to refer all matters in dispute”; and for attending the reference. The amount of this head of the bill was £122. 8s. 10d. Except insofar as might be inferred from the items quoted there was nothing to show whether the cause of Gillard v Heydeman had been pending in any, or which, of the superior courts. It was contended for the defendant that the first and last parts of the bill were insufficient, as they did not show in what courts the business there charged for was transacted; and therefore that the bill, being one entire bill, was not sufficient as to any part. For the plaintiff it was contended that the bill was sufficient for the whole; or, if not, that it was divisible and good pro tanto.

Lord Campbell C.J. delivered the judgment of the court. He referred to Ivimey v Marks (16 & W.) 843 in which the rule was laid down that a charge for an item in an action, without specifying in what court the action is brought, rendered the bill bad, the reason being that the client ought to be enabled by the bill to obtain advice as to taxation without the need of further question. The Lord Chief Justice pointed out section 37 of the 1843 Act and said:−

“No requisites for the bill are particularised: there is no requirement that the court should be specified: and the section further declares that the plaintiff is not bound in the first instance, in proving a compliance with the Act, to prove the contents of the bill delivered; but it is presumed sufficient unless the defendant proves that it is not such a bill as constitutes “a bona fide compliance with this Act.” The defendant here does not prove that any further information was practically wanted for taxation, or suggest that the name of the court in which the two writs of summons were issued would have been of any use to him: nor does he contend that the Act has not in this case been bona fide complied with, unless the arbitrary rule be deduced from the cases above mentioned, that the name of the court as to every item is indispensable, can be maintained. Now this rule, as applied to the existing statute, appears to have originated in a mistake: it was first introduced by judges applying the provisions of stat. 2 G. 2, c 23, s.23; and then there was good reason for it; for the jurisdiction to tax under that statute is given to the court in which the greater part of the business was done; and it was therefore indispensable for the parties and for the taxing officer to be able to assign each item to its appropriate court, before the taxation could be entered upon: moreover at that time the scale of charges in the different courts was different; so that the name of the court was also wanted in order to estimate the amount of charges. But, under the existing statute, if there is any item in any court of law, jurisdiction is given to all the superior courts indifferently; so that in respect of jurisdiction the name of the court is entirely immaterial: and so likewise it is for estimating the amount due, as the scale of charges in all the superior courts is now uniform. The judges, who instituted the rule in relation to the existing statute, adopted it from cases under the former statute, without adverting to the important changes in the law which the legislature had made; and thereby, as we think, contravened the intention of the legislature. If this reasoning is correct, it follows that the rule, which so originated, has been maintained without any useful purpose.”

He analysed a number of cases including Keene v Ward and then said:−

“This has been followed by a very salutary judgment in Cozens v Graham (16 Jurist, 952), where a bill was held valid although the court in which the business was done was not mentioned or described, it being clear that the defendant, knowing the court, did not want the information and only made the objection to evade payment of a debt.

Lord Campbell C.J. held:−

“I think the plaintiff has proved that he delivered such a bill as the statute requires. The statute, it is to be observed, requires the delivery of a bill of fees, charges and disbursements, but does not specify further what its contents shall be. I agree, however, that the bill must disclose on the face of it sufficient information as to the nature of the charges. I adopt the rule as to this, laid down in Keene v Ward  and in Cook v Gillard.The view taken by my brother Patteson in Keene v Ward seems very sensible.

He went on to say:−

“Complaints have sometimes been made that solicitors are not at liberty to recover the fair remuneration for their services as freely as any other person. It may be necessary to subject them to some regulation; but they have just ground for complaint if those regulations are vexatious, preventing the fair recovery of a just amount. I do not think that the legislature intended to throw on the solicitors the burthen of preparing a bill such that another solicitor on looking at it should, without any further statement, see on the face of the bill all the information requisite to enable him to say the charges were reasonable.

The principles to be derived from these cases were summarised by Ward LJ in his judgment in the Ralph Hume Garry case as follows:

Against that background the principles to be deduced from those cases appear to me to be these:−

i) the legislative intention was that the client should have sufficient material on the face of the bill as to the nature of the charges to enable him to obtain advice as to taxation. The need for advice was to be able to judge the reasonableness of the charges and the risks of having to pay the costs of taxation if less than one−sixth of the amount was taxed off.

ii) that rule was, however, subject to these caveats:−

a) precise exactness of form was not required and the rule was not that another solicitor should be able on looking at the bill, and without any further explanation from the client , see on the face of the bill all information requisite to enable him to say if the charges were reasonable;

b) thus the client must show that further information which he really and practically wanted in order to decide whether to insist on taxation had been withheld and that he was not already in possession of all the information that he could reasonably want for consulting on taxation.

iii) the test, it seems to me, is thus, not whether the bill on its face is objectively sufficient but whether the information in the bill supplemented by what is subjectively known to the client enables the client with advice to take an informed decision whether or not to exercise the only right then open to him, viz., to seek taxation reasonably free from the risk of having to pay the costs of that taxation.

iv) a balance has to be struck between the need, on the one hand, to protect the client and for the bill, together with what he knows, to give him sufficient information to judge whether he has been overcharged and, on the other hand, to protect the solicitor against late ambush being laid on a technical point by a client who seeks only to evade paying his debt.

The Victorian authorities formed a backdrop, to the very issue the Court of Appeal had to decided in the Ralph Hume Garry case: namely the sufficiency of a narrative for the purposes of section 69 of the Solicitors Act 1974 which provided:

(1) Subject to the provisions of this Act, no action shall be brought to recover any costs due to a solicitor before the expiration of one month from the date on which a bill of those costs is delivered in accordance with the requirements mentioned in subsection (2);

(2) The requirements referred to in subsection (1) are that the bill

(a) must be signed by the solicitor, or if the costs are due to a firm, by one of the partners of that firm, either in his own name or in the name of the firm, or be enclosed in, or accompanied by, a letter which is so signed and refers to the bill; and

(b) must be delivered to the party to be charged with the bill, either personally or by being sent to him by post to, or left for him at, his place of business, dwelling house, or last known place of abode;

and, where a bill is proved to have been delivered in compliance with those requirements, it shall not be necessary in the first instance for the solicitor to prove the contents of the bill and it shall be presumed, until the contrary is shown, to be a bill bona fide complying with this Act.

The Court of Appeal formulated the test as follows:

70.This review of the legislation and the case law leads me to conclude that the burden on the client under section 69(2) to establish that a bill for a gross sum in contentious business will not be a bill “bona fide complying with the Act” is satisfied if the client shows:−

i) that there is no sufficient narrative in the bill to identify what it is he is being charged for, and

ii) that he does not have sufficient knowledge from other documents in his possession or from what he has been told reasonably to take advice whether or not to apply for that bill to be taxed.

The sufficiency of the narrative and the sufficiency of his knowledge will vary from case to case, and the more he knows, the less the bill may need to spell it out for him. The interests of justice require that the balance be struck between protection of the client’s right to seek taxation and of the solicitor’s right to recover not being defeated by opportunistic resort to technicality.

71. On the facts of this case each bill was obviously and latterly expressly for professional charges. Even though it may have been perfectly obvious, the bills did identify the matter. Crucially for a determination of what was being charged for, the bill identified the period over which the work was being done. These bills may not have said much, but they did say something.

72. Whether the client’s knowledge was sufficient to supplement the lack of full narrative is a matter of fact. The judge held upon a review of the evidence that it was inappropriate to strike out the claim since Mr Ralph had shown a real prospect of establishing at the trial that Mr Gwillim knew all he needed to know about the work and the basis of charging reasonably to be able to exercise his right to seek taxation. I could not possibly interfere with those conclusions which, if the law is as I have stated it to be, were inevitable in the particular circumstances of this case. I would, therefore, dismiss the appeal.

73. I add this postscript for the profession’s consideration so that an unseemly dispute of this kind does not happen again. Surely in 2002 every second of time spent, certainly on contentious business, is recorded on the Account Department’s computer with a description of the fee−earner, the rate of charging and some description of the work done. A copy of the print−out, adjusted as may be necessary to remove items recorded for administrative purposes but not chargeable to the client, could so easily be rendered and all the problems that have arisen here would be avoided. In these days where there seems to be a need for transparency in all things, is a print−out not the least a client is entitled to expect?

A full copy of the judgment can be found here: Ralph Hume Garry v Gwillim [2002] EWCA Civ 1500.

2 thoughts on “The top 5 ways your solicitor rips you off

  1. I had to search for a solicitor that I could trust. There are a lot of companies that say their solicitors are friendly and professional, but unless you trust them, you won’t be satisfied with the service.

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