All Work and no Fee

We lost our satellite connection the other day so I telephoned a tv engineer and he called round to fix it. When he had finished I paid him and said thank you. I did not growl at him or slam the door in his face or threaten to report him to the satellite and aerial federation of Northern Ireland. I expected him to perform a service, which he did in timely fashion. He expected me to pay him. Which I did and we are both happy.

Now more often than not that is not the experience of a lawyer in Northern Ireland. We have all had that client. The lady who goes shopping and who sustains injury and is stuck by a milk carton or other such stray object falling from a shelf. You take instructions, issue a letter of claim and almost invariably receive an answer with a denial of liability. You advise your client on cost implications, you determine that your client may be eligible for public funding, you complete the forms and provide the client with the relevant means test form which is never completed and it drags on for months and then years. Occasionally you get a call ‘What is happening with my claim’ inevitably you reply ‘what has happened with the Legal Aid means test form in a cycle until your diary lets you know that the case will be statute barred. So you issue a protective Writ for a case which most likely has been brought before the District Judge. Another almost year passes. Again your diary tells you to serve the Writ. Still no means test form, still no funding for the case but now you are committed to a contested action. Still the client wants to know what is happening with their claim and ‘why do I even need legal aid anyway?’

Eventually because nothing is happening your client loses patience and says something offensive. The client/solicitor relationship has broken down. You write to say you can no longer act and worst of all and above everything else you send your client a Bill. What happens next?

In the Matter of a Solicitor, reported at [2014] NIQB 98 Morgan LCJ had to consider such a factual scenario. It appears that upon receiving the bill from the solicitor, the client immediately made a complaint to the Law Society. This resulted in disciplinary proceedings against the solicitor and a finding by the Complaints and Disciplinary Tribunal that the solicitor was entitled to no legal costs whatsoever. The solicitor appealed the Tribunals findings.

Law Society contested the appeal. In their defence they called a solicitor who gave evidence that a solicitor is not entitled to incur costs greater than £50.00 without obtaining the express consent of the client even though it emerged that this was not the actual policy of her own legal practice.

The Court found in favour of the solicitor in the circumstances and noted that the matter arose before the introductions of regulations which now mean that solicitors must provide letters of engagement/retainer letters at the outset of instructions to ensure the client is fully aware of how their legal costs are to be paid