Just because your solicitors say it is too late to challenge their bill, don’t take their word for it

Out-of-Time The solicitors argued that the client was largely out of time to challenge bills
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Zulf Masters is the owner of a pharmaceutical company. He was faced with litigation in the form of a USD 4.6 million claim from Porter Capital and, following that – when they obtained judgment – 2 different sets of enforcement proceedings.

In 2012 he instructed specialist commercial litigation firm of Charles Fussell & Co to deal with the litigation on his behalf. CF & Co are "led by former barrister and Herbert Smith litigator, Charles Fussell, with support from solicitors and staff with litigation experience gained from leading City firms."

Almost a million in legal fees later, and alarmed by the extent of charging, ZM went elsewhere to continue with the main case.

Checkmylegalfees.com were instructed to seek assessment of CF's fees and disbursements of £930k under the Solicitors Act 1974 : legislation, which has its roots in Victorian times, and which enables the court to determine the reasonable amount that a law firm ought to have charged in its bill.

As is often the case CF, who had a monthly billing regime, argued that the strict time limits under the legislation ran from the dates of each of their 77 individual bills that had been sent to ZM periodically throughout the case. The effect of this would have been to put the majority of ZM's billing out of reach and not open to challenge.

CMLF were successful in securing for ZM an entitlement to assess the totality of the bill, the Court effectively treating the series of monthly bills as "chapters in a book" with the end of the final chapter being the point at which the time limits began to run.

The judgment reinforces the established (but often overlooked) principal that for a monthly bill to start time limits running, the solicitor must have made that intention and the consequences of it plain before entering into the contract – 

"The Draconian nature of the time periods in limiting a client's ability to obtain an assessment of a solicitor's statute bill has led the courts to require solicitors to "make it plain" to their clients if they intend each bill rendered to be a self-contained bill for a period and for which the time limit for challenge begins to run immediately"

Extract of Judgment, Costs Judge Jason Rowley, 11/01/21 

 Mark Carlisle, CMLF Founder, who represented Zulf said : "the judgment is a good reminder of the default position, which is that a challenge to a bill should be available at the end of a case, because it is only then that a client can properly evaluate the legal fees. Costs Judge Rowley recognised the very real difficulty in a client suing his solicitor for an assessment of fees while the solicitor continued to act for him. In this case, if Charles Fussell & Co's argument had been allowed, then just to preserve his position so that he could evaluate the fees at the end Mr.Masters would have had to launch 70 separate sets of proceedings against his own solicitors at the same time as they were dealing with the case for him"

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