Like all other service providers, lawyers are entitled to charge for their services. This is usually at ‘market rates’ or at a rate to be agreed between you and your lawyer.
What and how lawyers charge usually depends on the nature of the legal work.
In the past, certain non-contentious matters, had a fixed scale fees that the law required lawyers to follow, eg. the Solicitors’ Remuneration Order (SRO) governs the fees relating to conveyancing matters. Lawyers were not allowed to charge more or less than the prescribed scale of costs although they can waive the particular sets of costs. The scale fees were originally designed to protect members of the public from over-charging by lawyers.
However over the years, as costs of other products and services dropped, the scale fees were seen as protecting the lawyers. Thus, the scale fees were abolished since 1st February 2003. This worked out well for the public as most law firms now charge lower than the scale fees. The Law Society of Singapore however provides a recommended scale costs schedule for conveyancing matters and you can find them at this link.
Where the matter is contentious* and litigation is necessary, the experience and skill of a lawyer often make the difference between winning and losing the case. For matters of this nature, rates can vary drastically between firms or even between lawyers.
* A contentious matter is one where your lawyer has to file or defend an application or proceeding against you in Court which may be either civil or criminal in nature.
It is not unusual for lawyers in the senior category (having been in practice for 10 years or more) to charge based on a per professional hour basis for contentious matters. These rates may range from S$350 – S$1,500 per professional hour.
Are there laws that govern how a lawyer can charge?
Despite having abolished the scale fees, lawyers are still governed by legislation on how they should charge. The Legal Profession Act and the Solicitors Remuneration Order sets out the following guidelines:
- Your lawyer can make an agreement with you with respect to the legal costs in a contentious matter for either
- A fixed fee i.e. an agreed amount irrespective of the volume of work done (a fixed fee);
- a non-refundable retainer (deposit) for work to be undertaken and/or
- time based payment i.e. the per professional hour rate mentioned earlier.
- In the absence of agreement, the lawyer can charge according to:
- the nature and complexity of the matter,
- the skill, labour and responsibility involved on the part of the lawyer,
- the experience of the lawyer,
- the length of time taken to complete the matter, and
- the number and importance of the documents prepared and studied by the lawyer.
Despite having agreed on the costs, the agreement can still be challenged in Court if your lawyer grossly overcharges or that the agreement is not deemed fair and reasonable. Your lawyer is also not allowed to agree to charge “contingency fees” i.e. payment only in the event of success for contentious matters.
I think my lawyer has overcharged me. What should I do?
(a) Speak to your lawyer
That should always be your first step to resolving any grievances you may have with your lawyers including issues in costs. In most circumstances, your lawyer will not only address your concerns by explaining and clarifying the matter to you but also adjust the costs if it is a genuine error on his part.
(b) Request for a detailed bill
No reasonable lawyer will say “no” to a detailed bill. This bill should provide:
- the nature of work done by the lawyer eg research, drafting correspondence, attending court, attendances with you and other persons including telephone attendance and perusing documents.
- The time spent on each item of the work
- Detailed listing of disbursements spent on your behalf
The detailed bill of costs should be able to tell you exactly what legal work has been done for you.
If the above two options still fail to resolve your problem about your lawyers’ costs, either you or your lawyer can apply to the Court for a formal assessment or “”taxation”” of the bill of costs.
If your lawyer and you agree to the taxation, your lawyer will then draft the bill and submit it to Court. However, if one of you say “no” to the taxation, another application must be made to Court for an order for taxation. This must be done within one year from the delivery of the bill.
Your lawyer can proceed to tax his own bill of costs if you dispute the quantum of the bill. Your lawyer can only present the bill for taxation one month from the delivery of the bill. Consequently, your lawyer can proceed to sue you on the taxed costs, if you still refuse to pay.
If you do not dispute your lawyers’ bill of costs within one year from the delivery of the bill, no order shall be made for taxation, except under special circumstances.
Where the amount reduced is not less than one sixth of the bill, then if the application to tax the costs is made by you or if you attend the taxation, you may be asked to pay the costs of taxation.
There are two types of taxation: (i) on a standard basis; and (ii) on an indemnity basis.
Legal costs on a standard basis is the legal costs you are liable to pay to the other party if you have lost your case in a contentious matter.
Legal costs on an indemnity basis is the legal costs you are liable to pay to your own lawyer when they act for you. Therefore, if you are dissatisfied with your lawyers’ legal costs, you should tax the bill on an indemnity basis.
In a taxation of a bill of costs on an indemnity basis, the procedure is as follows:
i)File and Serve the Bill of Costs
A Bill of Costs in the correct format should be prepared, filed in court and subsequently served on your lawyers. If your lawyer initiates the taxation when you dispute the amount of the Bill, they will prepare, file and serve the Bill of Costs.
ii) The Taxation Hearing
The Bill of Costs will state the date and time of the taxation hearing. A list of all the bills of costs fixed for hearing on that relevant day will be posted at the courts’ website a few days before that hearing date.
At the hearing, the Registrar may:-
- take an account of any dealings in money relating to the payment of the costs being taxed;
- require any party represented jointly with any party in any proceedings before him to be separately represented;
- examine any witness in those proceedings; or
- direct the production of any document which may be relevant in connection with those proceedings.
iii) Objections: Marking A Bill of Costs
You may attend in person or by lawyers at the hearing of the taxation. You object to the Bill of Costs or to portions of it by marking the Bill with ‘Ps’ and/or ‘Qs’, ie. objecting on ‘principle’ or ‘quantum’ or both ‘principle and quantum’.
If you object to the bill of costs or portions of it on ‘principle’, you are saying that the lawyer is not entitled to the costs at all.
If you object on ‘quantum’, you are saying that the lawyer is entitled to the costs but you disagree to the sum he is entitled to.
iv) What If You Fail to Attend the Taxation Hearing?
If you fail to attend the taxation hearing within a reasonable time after the time appointed for the taxation, the Registrar, if satisfied that you had notice of the date and time appointed, may proceed with the taxation.
v) Taxation Review
If you are dissatisfied with the decision or any part of the decision of the Registrar, you have to apply to a Judge to review the Registrar’s decision within 14 days of the decision.
The Judge may either increase or decrease the taxed costs. Alternatively, the Judge may dismiss the review.