Legal Bills – a Taxing Problem

The story might be apocryphal but I have heard tell of the solicitor who billed his client simply by weighing his file. Another story relates to the solicitor who simply thought of a number and then doubled it.

Yet the laws relating to how a solicitor is entitled to charge for his services are very rigid and quite draconian. Abuses of the costs system by solicitors can have serious financial and even professional disciplinary consequences.

There are certain rules which apply when a solicitor sends his client a Bill. The client should exercise his/her rights if the client feels that they have been unfairly or over charged.

For a Bill to be a valid Bill it must be signed by a partner of that firm and it must have a statement of the clients rights printed on it – usually as small print at the bottom of the page or on the reverse of the Bill.

The client has two basic rights. For non contentious matter – for example a house purchase or a straightforward probate matter the client has a right under paragraph 1 of Article 4 of the Solicitors Remuneration Order (Northern Ireland) 1997 and The Solicitors Remuneration (Land Registry) Order (Northern Ireland) 1988 to require his/her solicitor to obtain a certificate from the Law Society of Northern Ireland. This certificate will have to state that in the view of the Society the costs that have been charged are reasonable. Failure to obtain such a Certificate will mean that the Solicitor cannot enforce his Bill. Such a request to obtain a Certificate must be made to the solicitor within one month of receiving the Bill.

In all other cases (including non contentious cases) the client can apply to a Court – known as the Office of Taxation – and obtain an Order that the Solicitor must submit the Bill to a formal and strict assessment by the Court. If the Court finds that the Solicitor has overcharged by a certain percentage (roughly 20%) the solicitor is ordered to pay the legal costs of the taxation procedure and the relevant stamp duty (roughly 15% of the Professional fee). If the Court finds that the Solicitor has grossly overcharged the client then that Solicitor is automatically referred to the Disciplinary Committee of the Law Society and can face official sanction from the professional body.

Any application must be made strictly within three months of the Bill of Costs being received and it is for the client to make the Application. The Application procedure itself is relatively straightforward.

The Office of the Taxing Master is located at 3rd Floor, Mays Chambers, 73 May Street, Belfast, BT1 3JL.