Client complaints – a tool kit for solicitors

Some lawyers have never received a complaint from a client.

Or so they say.

Such prodigies, liars and recent arrivals to the profession are vastly outnumbered by the rest of us.

This might explain the big audience of solicitors who turned out this week at a seminar Gordon & Jackson hosted on the twin topics of client complaints and recent cases dealing with the Civil Procedure Act.

I delivered a paper on the first topic. The paper’s section headings will give you the flavour of its content:

  1. Complaints are inevitable;
  2. Try not to take complaints personally (and get help, of whatever variety);
  3. Categories of complaint under the Uniform Law;
  4. Categories of complaint beyond the Uniform Law;
  5. Your LPLC insurance – the good news and the bad;
  6. Avoiding complaints in the first place; and
  7. Professional standards scheme – you are a participant, aren’t you?

My colleague Monika Paszkiewicz spoke on the Civil Procedure Act. Her paper includes reference to Judd J’s recent observations (in ACN 005 490 540 Pty Ltd v Robert Frederick James Pty Ltd [2016] VSC 217 at paras 18 -19) that solicitors who threaten each other too willingly with personal costs applications under the Civil Procedure Act might themselves be breaching the very statute they are invoking.

Client complaints and the Civil Procedure Act have obvious potential overlap for litigation solicitors. Download the two papers (combined as a single document) here and file them away with your Civil Procedure Act resources.

Estimating the costs of an impending litigation for disclosure purposes

You are a solicitor about to open a new potential litigation file. It might go all the way to the High Court. But it also might settle in response to your very first letter of demand.

The only real certainty about it is that the new Uniform Law requires you to give your client a written disclosure “as soon as practicable after instructions are initially given” which  must include “an estimate of total legal costs.”  You must then promptly update that disclosure ever thereafter when there is a “significant change to anything previously disclosed” (see s 174 of the Uniform Act).

What does that all mean? This early in the life of the Uniform Law, nobody can be certain but if you get your disclosure wrong (initially and/or subsequently) your costs agreement is likely to be rendered void as a consequence (see s 178(a) of the Uniform Act) and collecting payment will become slow and problematic as a consequence.

So get your costs disclosure right.

Here are some suggestions (but no promises) as to how to go about it.

  1.  Start with one of the Law Institute of Victoria’s disclosure template documents available here. By all means modify the LIV’s wheels to suit your particular situation but don’t reinvent them altogether.
  2. Make your costs estimate sensible. Your client might be dismayed with the bottom line estimate but everyone will be happier to see that figure upfront in an estimate than to be ambushed by something similar in the final bill.
  3. Make the costs estimate transparent to your client. An Excel spreadsheet where you (and the client) can manipulate the variables might be a great way to start. (Help yourself to the template version below.)
  4. Be candid with your client as to the vagaries of both litigation and your estimate. Maybe your client’s case will be quick and simple. But maybe it will become the Battle of the Somme instead, complete with counterclaims, interlocutory skirmishes, third and fourth parties and some stern appellate action to top it all off. Your guess at the very start is possibly only slightly better than your client’s. Don’t pretend otherwise.
  5. Sign the client up to a costs agreement. Again, be guided by the Law Institute precedents.
  6. Having done all of the above, test your client’s comprehension of the strategy and costs being embarked upon. File note it. (Seriously, file note it. You might need those file notes years down the track if your client suggests that language/stress/other issues impeded his/her comprehension of the costs disclosure sufficiently to constitute a breach by you of s 174(3) of the Uniform Law.)
  7. When your costs disclosure then seems complete – remind yourself that it probably isn’t. Your ongoing disclosure obligations endure until the file is actually closed.

Some thoughts on the accompanying spreadsheet
I have drawn the spreadsheet below as an aide-memoire for solicitors attempting to estimate future solicitor/own client costs for Uniform Law disclosure purposes. Inevitably, it will need modification for each actual case.

For template purposes, I have done it for a hypothetical commercial case in the Victorian County Court. The rates I have utilized are derived from the County Court scale (which is, of course, 80 per cent of the Supreme Court scale – see this blog.)

I have made the following viable (but not inevitable) assumptions which might or might not apply to your case. (Change the variables and add or delete new row items to suit your particular client’s anticipated case.)

  • The spreadsheet is for a prospective plaintiff;
  • There is no conditional costs agreement (eg no win/no fee) arrangement proposed;
  • There will be a single claim against a single defendant;
  • There will be no counterclaim, third party claim or similar;
  • There will be no pleading amendments by either side;
  • All directions will be made ‘on the papers’ and by consent;
  • There will be a single contested interlocutory application;
  • There will be a single mediation;
  • There will be a four-day trial with a reserved judgment handed down on an eventual fifth day with short argument that day as to costs, interest and the final form of the Court’s orders;
  • There will be two expert witnesses, (eg an accountant and an engineer) for the plaintiff and no lay witnesses for the plaintiff requiring payment for their attendance;
  • Everything will happen in Melbourne without anyone claiming circuit fees, travel expenses or similar;
  • The barrister will do an initial advice as to merits, draw the statement of claim, do an advice as to evidence, remain involved incidentally throughout the matter and will charge the equivalent of 10 hours’ preparation for each anticipated full day in Court;
  • The solicitor and the single (senior) junior barrister will each charge the client the maximum County Court scale rates applicable to them as of November 2015 (ie solicitor $302.40 per hour and the barrister $432 per hour / $4316 per day in Court) (plus GST in both cases); and
  • There will be no appeal.

Note that because of the technical limitations of WordPress (which hosts this blog) the Excel / Numbers functions formerly embedded in the table below have been lost in posting it here. You can resurrect the table and its functions for your own use by –

  • copying and pasting the table from this blog back into your own Excel / Numbers spreadsheet;
  • restoring the functions manually (eg in Excel you make the formula in D2 read “=PRODUCT(B2:C2)” and then replicate it for the remaining rows;
  • insert/delete rows and increase/decrease the rates and duration estimates to suit the circumstances; and
  • use “AutoSum” to calculate the total.

You might even email a version of your spreadsheet to your client so he/she can also manipulate some of the variables. Emphasize to your client that you are providing an estimate – not a quote and that the defining characteristic of commercial litigation is that it never goes entirely according to the script.

Some parting cautions
Three final issues occur to me that might be prudently flagged as part of your disclosure to your client. (Neither is apparent in the Uniform Law or my spreadsheet.)

  • Most litigation settles well before trial. Some settles during the running of the trial. Of the relatively few cases that run to judgment, some are appealed but most are not. The combined effect of these disparate possibilities is that your initial estimate might legitimately undershoot or overshoot the eventual total that you charge your client drastically.
  • Losers will usually be ordered to pay the winner’s costs. This means that the figure in your compulsory Uniform Law estimate is likely to be substantially wrong in practical net terms. The final, post-trial, net figure your client pays for lawyers’ involvement in the litigation is likely to be much higher or lower than your Uniform Law estimate, depending on whether your client is on the right or wrong end of a substantial costs order.
  • Once embarked upon, litigation can seldom be unilaterally abandoned without adverse costs consequences – see for example Victorian Supreme Court Rule 63.15 and County Court Rule 63.15 about the cost presumptions upon the filing of a notice of discontinuance. This makes dangerous the widely-held view that costs can and should be estimated to prospective litigants as a sequence of distinct figures. Lay clients might reason from an overly segmented disclosure that if they are not enjoying the litigation ride, they might easily and cheaply, unilaterally quit along the way as if alighting from a bus at one of its usual stops. Alas, life and litigation just isn’t as simple as the authors of the Uniform Law apparently believe.

What guarantees do I offer about the spreadsheet? None but any bouquets or brickbats about it are welcome all the same.

Category of legal work estimated time estimate in hours (assume 1 day =10 hours) hourly /unit charge approx total charge
Pre-litigation investigation & negotiation (solicitor) 20 $302 $6,048
Brief to advise (barrister) 10 $432 $4,320
Writ & statement of claim (barrister) 10 $432 $4,320
Filing fee $814 $814
Brief as to evidence (barrister) 10 $432 $4,320
Preparation for and attendance at mediation (solicitor) 6 $302 $1,814
Preparation for and attendance at mediation (barrister) 10 $432 $4,320
Mediator’s fee (half share) $2,000 $2,000
Mediation venue hire (half share) $300 $300
Interlocutory application (solicitor) 10 $432 $4,320
Interlocutory application (barrister) 10 $432 $4,320
Fees for Expert # 1 – report and appearance as expert witness 30 $362 $10,860
Fees for Expert # 2 – report and appearance as expert witness 30 $362 $10,860
Solicitor’s general preparation (including attendances on client, experts, counsel and court, correspondence, offers of compromise, discovery, notices to admit, expert witness notices, preparation of court book etc) 100 $302 $30,200
Trial preparation (barrister) 45 $432 $19,440
Setting down fee $962 $962
Hearing fee (per day of trial from day 2) 3 days $500 $1,500
Solicitor instructing in Court 45 $302 $13,590
Barrister – appearance at trial 40 $432 $17,280
Barrister – taking judgment 5 $432 $2,160
Misc disbursements (eg process servers, company searches, couriers, subpoenas etc) $2,000 $2,000
Trial transcript (4 days @$2250 per day) $10,000 $10,000
TOTAL ESTIMATE $155,748 (plus GST)

County Court scales up on costs

Are you a County Court litigator charging scale? If so, congratulations; you got a pay rise this week.

Commiserations on the other hand if you a County Court litigant already rueful about rejecting a shrewd offer of compromise. Your burden just got heavier.

The County Court of Victoria has amended its cost rule, Order 63A.

For beneficiaries of scale costs (lawyers and successful litigants especially) this is good news.

There are two key changes.

The first is the axing of the County Court’s own stand-alone scale. Instead, the County Court Civil Procedure Rules now apply the Supreme Court’s scale but discounts it a uniform 20 per cent.

Take, for example, the scale allowances for a solicitor’s time. Under the former County Court scale, a solicitor’s time was allowable at $277 per hour for attending a conference and $546 per half day instructing in Court.

That same solicitor’s time under the new County Court costs regime is now worth $296 per hour (ie 80 per cent of the Supreme Court rate of $370 per hour). As is in the Supreme, costs are now claimable on an hourly basis and also in 6 minute units but the half-day rate for solicitors’ time is gone.

The second key change is the end of ‘party and party costs’. The new default measure of costs is ‘standard basis’ (which is really ‘solicitor and client’ costs by another name). (Indemnity costs remain as the juicer alternative). This change echoes the Supreme Court’s costs reforms of last year (as to which see my blog of the time here).

Some other features of the new County Court costs regime:

  • Costs of pleading amendments (whether with or without leave) are now costs in the proceeding unless the Court otherwise orders (CCR 63A.17);
  • Similarly, costs of interlocutory applications will be costs in the proceeding absent an order to the contrary (CCR 63A 20.1) (Incidentally, this rule has no direct Supreme Court equivalent);
  • Interlocutory costs orders are payable “forthwith” (CCR 63A.03(2)) but unless the Court otherwise orders those costs may not be taxed until the entire proceeding is completed (CCR 63A 20.1). (This is likely to have a glacial effect on the concept of “forthwith”).
  • The entire Order 63A continues to be ostensibly premised on the “County Court scale of costs” as if such a document exists. But it simply doesn’t. Instead CCR 1.13 gives legal force to the mirage by providing, “County Court scale of costs” means a fee, charge or amount that is 80 per cent of the applicable rate set out in Appendix A to Chapter 1 of the Rules of the Supreme Court.”
  • The new rules and costs apply from 7 October 2014 irrespective of when the proceeding involved commenced (CCR 63A.83).

(Thanks to barrister Mark Lapirow for alerting me to the new Order 63A before the ink had even dried on it.)

Paul Duggan

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Paul Duggan is a commercial litigation barrister based in Melbourne, Australia.

Since 1996 he has advised and appeared in most types of business-to-business and business-to-customer disputes – commercial and domestic building matters, commercial and retail leasing disputes, insolvencies, franchises, partnerships, insurance, professional negligence, sales of land, Corporation Act matters and trade practices disputes to name a few. Although Paul has represented governments, major public companies, insurers, Lloyds syndicates and private individuals his clients are predominantly small and medium enterprises contemplating or engaged in litigation in the Victorian Supreme Court, County Court or VCAT.

Paul also practises in the federal jurisdictions and interstate.

Paul’s clerk is Gordon & Jackson.

Liability limited by a scheme approved under the Professional Standards Act 2003.