Commercial litigation is often ultimately uncommercial. And when things turn really sour solicitors will often have a personal stake in the question of who is to miss out financially.
This issue arose in an insolvency context last week in a Supreme Court tussle between mega firm DLA Piper and the liquidators of their former client Windemac Pte Ltd.
Back in 2013 Windemac won a Supreme Court judgment for $312,000 plus interest and costs. It was perhaps a Pyrrhic victory as DLA’s bills to Windemac totalled almost $360,000. Windemac went bust two years later still owing DLA Piper more than $100,000.
After Windemac went into liquidation there still remained a costs order for almost $98,000 in Windemac’s favour to be enforced against the defendants. Was that money to go to Windemac’s liquidators or to the short-paid solicitors?
Associate Justice Derham held that the solicitors were entitled to an equitable lien over the proceeds of the costs order on established ‘fruits of the action’ principles and that the solicitors’ rights had priority over the claims of Windemac’s other creditors in the insolvency.
The decision contains a useful extract on solicitor’s liens for costs extracted from Elliot J’s decision in Oakley Thompson & Co v Maisano (No 2)  VSC 210 at 77. Here (with citations omitted) is Elliot J’s summary:
(1) At common law, a solicitor has a general possessory lien for all professional costs due by her or his client. This entitles the solicitor to keep in her or his possession all property of the client which comes into the solicitor’s possession during the course of her or his professional employment until the solicitor’s costs have been paid.
(2) A solicitor has no lien for costs over any property which has not come into her or his possession.
(3) If a client obtains a judgment for the payment of money (including a judgment for costs), the solicitor acquires a right to have her or his costs paid out of the money payable, such right being an equitable right to be paid. This right is not dependent upon an order having been made to recognise the right, or upon a taxation having occurred.
(4) If the solicitor gives notice of the right to the person who is liable to pay the money, only the solicitor, and not the client, can give a good discharge to that person for an amount of the money equivalent to the solicitor’s costs.
(5) If the person liable to pay has notice of the solicitor’s right, but refuses to pay the solicitor, the solicitor may obtain a “rule of court” directing that the costs be paid to the solicitor and not to the client. (In this context, a rule of court is a reference to an order or a direction of the court.)
(6) If the client and a judgment debtor make a collusive arrangement in order to defeat the solicitor’s right, the court will enforce that right against the judgment debtor notwithstanding the arrangement and notwithstanding that no notice of the solicitor’s claim has been given to the judgment debtor prior to the arrangement.
Associate Justice Derham’s decision is DLA Piper Australia v Official Receiver of Singapore (as liquidators of Windemac Pte Ltd)  VSC 216.
The lesson from this? Solicitors’ liens are good and can trump a liquidator. But solicitors getting their money into trust up-front on account of fees is even better. After all, the solicitors here might have chalked up a win but they still took a haircut on the fees which had been outstanding to them for over four years.