Earlier this week, several newspapers reported on how one very high profile divorce solicitor added significant charges to her client’s final bills. These charges, unusually, were openly labelled as ‘mark-ups’ but the clients in question have both reported that they were happy with both the services that they received and, indeed, the fees that they had accrued. The clients in question were both very wealthy individuals, but the additional charges in question were by no means diminutive which does beg the question: why would anyone be happy to pay for something when it is unclear what service they have received? The answer, in my opinion, lies within the lack of transparency concerning lawyer’s actions.
With the exception of lawyers themselves, no one really knows what work is being done to justify fees that can total as much as £700 per hour. Perhaps this of less concern to the very wealthy, but to individuals with more modest incomes – many of whom will seek the services of a solicitor when they are at their most vulnerable – it’s a serious problem, particularly when the current economic climate is taken into consideration.
Various experts at both the Legal Ombudsman and Solicitor’s Regulation Authority have posthumously claimed that solicitors too often fail to keep their clients informed of their actions only to then charge them excessive and unwarranted fees. These spokespeople did add that is was only a minority of legal professionals that engaged in such unscrupulous behaviour, but whilst the majority of solicitors may adhere to an admirable code of conduct, those that do not possess all of the training, skills and experience required to exploit society’s most susceptible individuals.
And what if one of these vulnerable individuals feels that they have been overcharged? How, exactly, do they seek justice when they have been fleeced by the very people they employed to bring them justice in the first place? They are unlikely to have enough capital remaining to instruct another legal professional and – even if they did – would they still trust these individuals? This leaves them with two options, complain to the Solicitor’s Regulation Authority or the Legal Ombudsman, or pursue the matter as a litigant in person. The latter option is problematic for obvious reasons and whilst the aforementioned institutions will be able to assist, neither will be able to address the matter hastily leaving the victim in question lacking much needed funds for up to several months.
In total, 79 solicitors were barred from practicing law in 2010 as a result of malpractice and the Solicitors Regulation Authority have also recently announced significant changes to the way in which solicitors will be supervised. It is clear, then, that the relevant authorities are not turning a blind eye to these problems, but this problem would be better addressed through preventative rather than punitive action.
The general public must be made aware of precisely what a legal professional will do for them. They must also be made aware of the reasons why quotes for such services can escalate. An educated public will be less susceptible to deceit and a greater number of materials outlining precisely what clients can expect from solicitors are needed.