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Legal fees > Fee Disputes

Fee Disputes

Most disputes about fees arise at the end of a matter - and attorneys often refer to the curve of satisfaction - clients are generally happiest as the result is achieved - and a few weeks later believe they could have achieved a better result, at less cost - and often by themselves.  That is human nature and people who believe that forget the saying that it is a fool who has himself as his own lawyer!  Its quite amazing watching how many people try to defend themselves - and one has to wonder if only those with no case do, because they all seem to lose - or if it is the best way to toss away any chance you had of winning the case! 

The process of having the relevant Taxing Master at the Court go through an attorneys bill and decide what amounts to reduce, or items to remove altogether because, for example, they are unnecessary is known as taxation.  The problem with taxation for a non-legally qualified person can be very difficult.  The Court official will apply his mind of course, but how on earth can you be expected to know what legal cases relating to the taxation process and attorneys fees are applicable or relevant to your case?  In fact, most attorneys don't even tax their own bills - they hire attorneys who are experts in this field to argue them, often accompanying them to lead evidence on certain factual things or to more easily find items in the file or be able to answer factual questions on the matter.  Once the Taxing Master totals up the amount he believes reasonable, until and unless you successfully appeal, that's what you are going to be paying!  As an example:  

The attorney does have to warn you of this prospect before, and his intention to claim a higher fee if one is awarded, in order for him to then charge the extra amount.  On the other hand, you may well have the fees lowered and then be entitled to a reduction in fees or a refund, depending on whether you have already paid or not. 

The Taxation process is not one to embark on just because you think attorneys generally overcharge, or because you want to see exactly what the court will give you.  The attorney is compensated an extra 5% of the total amount of the bill just for drawing the bill up (and "just" is not the word - it's a long and tiresome process) and he gets another 5% if you do not tax more than 20% off the bill.  In other words, if he proves say 90% of his bill as drawn by him (or his expert), he will get on top of that another 5% on the work done plus then another 5% on all work plus disbursements.  It's a long process.  The attorney or his expert may take easily two months just to draw the bill, and it can take two to four months after that to get a court date and time to tax the bill.  Taxing Masters fall ill or run out of time to tax if every single item is argued and you could be in for the long haul.  Taxing a bill of costs is only an option when you are sure that: 

Your attorney has overcharged you; and 
You will knock off at least 10% of what he has charged you; and
You are ready to fight a fight you are not trained for - or to hire someone to help you who is - yes, another attorney.

 My advice to someone who really does believe they have been overcharged, and in a way that makes the process worthwhile, and I am not talking about R500, is to consult another attorney about the previous attorney's fees.  You can't fight the fight with another attorney as well by yourself and the very fact that most attorneys hire expert attorneys to help them on their own bills and taxations tells you all you need to know! 

HOW CAN THE LAW SOCIETY HELP?

Law Societies can also help settle issue with regards to fees - but here there is a catch, they can generally only help with matters of a non-litigious nature - that is matters where the Taxing Master at Court would not be able to tax the matter because the matter would not go to Court.  The best examples here would be fees in conveyancing matters, trademark and intellectual property fees, fees for the drawing up of contracts, criminal matters and maintenance matters in the Magistrates Court or Family Courts (there is no Taxing Master for these courts or schedule of fees).  In a litigious matter - which would include divorces and any normal litigation - or cases where the matters could have come before the Courts if they were not settled prior to then, for example a Road Accident Fund claim, the Law Societies only become involved if the attorney concerned consents to a fee assessment committee reviewing his or her fees.  If the attorney does not agree this process, then it would proceed, as is the usual case, to be taxed before the Taxing Master of the appropriate court.

Fee assessment committee's would generally consist of two attorneys who have experience within that field of law who would go through the work done, the fee charged and assess what they believe a reasonable fee would be.  The danger for an attorney in this process - or to even agreeing to it, is that unlike the taxation process, he may well, if his fee is reduced substantially be charged by the Law Society with overreaching - which is a fairly serious charge.  On the other hand, charge too little and he also faces the risk of being accused of touting for business - in other words charging too little, regard being had to his experience and business expenses, to try and encourage more business.  An attorney would generally be unwise to agree to this process at all and he may insist on dealing with a dispute via the taxation process - which does carry risks for you with it - especially if he did not overcharge you!