£4,000 is a heck of a lot of money for photocopying, even if you’d budgeted for it. At 10p a sheet, that’s 40,000 sheets of paper, although of course if it was solicitors doing it, the cost could well have been £1 a sheet, which is still a hefty 4,000 pages. Even the most complicated divorce case couldn’t have needed that much photocopying, surely?
Maybe not, but according to a report published last week by the Legal Ombudsman (LeO), this is what one poor woman, Miss A, was charged, along with an additional £11,000 over the budget she originally agreed with her lawyers. As if getting divorced and finding yourself at odds with your far wealthier husband wasn’t enough, you then get stung by your lawyers.
How can this happen? How can another woman, Mrs C, have found her final legal bill was more than double the amount estimated at the outset of her case? In a further case, Mrs B, ended up with a bill of £70,000 for an acrimonious and drawn out legal battle in which her solicitors had acted properly, apart from checking she was happy to keep racking up legal fees.
I can only assume that the lawyers guilty of these offences have never had to use a plumber, or had an extension built, or their car serviced or even used an accountant, for in my experience these professionals make sure you want to pay for something before they do it. It really can’t be that hard to check once a month that the amount of work you are doing is in line with your initial estimate and get the client’s consent if it’s looking a bit out of control?
I guess it must be. And in any case, it’s probably the client’s fault for wanting their lawyers to act as therapists and wage war by proxy. Apparently, much of it is ‘manufactured drama’ caused by an unwillingness to sit down and negotiate. This is more than likely true, but lawyers should act in the interests of their clients, which by my reckoning includes not only advising them of the best way forward with their case, but also making sure they have the ability to pay.
Divorce and family law related cases are the most complained about area of law in England and Wales, according to the LeO’s report. There are some good reasons for this, not least the trauma of divorce and the desire to rely on someone who appears to be on your side. But a quarter of these complaints are related to poor cost information, with one in five customers saying they weren’t given an estimate of fees at the outset.
I am told that family lawyers have been the most intractable when it comes to embracing fixed fees. If I were being uncharitable I would say this is because it’s easier to slip unreasonable fees past someone who is emotional and stressed and get away with it. Or at least it was before the Legal Services Act introduced independent complaints handling through the LeO.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, they’ll now have to contend with the potentially game-changing intervention of Co-operative Legal Services.
I’m a huge Co-Op enthusiast and have no truck with detractors who say their low-price, fixed-fee tariff is both unsustainable and not that affordable anyway. To be fair, it’s not for me to judge the former, but as far as affordability goes, anything is better than the status quo if only for certainty.
There is, however, another thing to throw into the mix, which is the imminent withdrawal of legal aid from family law cases (from 1 April), except in cases involving domestic violence. If there is already an inequality of arms between an impoverished wife and a well-off husband (or the other way around), this is only going to get worse leaving people like Cathy to their own devices. If neither party can afford a lawyer, the courts are going to have even more fun trying to sort it all out.
The Co-op, because of its size (a store on every high street and a network of 1,000 bank branches, as well as plans for 100 family lawyers), may be the only organisation that can step into this breach. It’s director of family law, Christina Blacklaws, said in October last year that she was hoping they would still be able to represent a lot of people who would have been eligible for legal aid with free legal advice supported by a website.
Blacklaws was careful not to criticise other family lawyers for not moving sooner (or at all) to fixed fees, saying they’d had little support to innovate until the Legal Services Act opened up the market. She may well have a point. But the fact remains that too many lawyers for too long have not been taking the customer service side of their business at all seriously. If they don’t respond, and with legal aid cuts looming, it will soon only be the wealthy who can afford to get divorced.
Louise is a consumer champion and communications specialist. Before this, she ran a successful campaign for change in the legal sector (resulting in the Legal Services Act), worked in a law firm and at the Law Society. She is a trustee of the Public Law Project and cares about justice, fairness and cake.