What do Linda Evangelista and Dale Boucher have in common?

Linda E 020916

Dale B narrow 3 020916

What do Linda Evangelista and Dale Boucher have in common?

Slightly more than you think. They are both recognized authorities within their fields on costs disclosure.

The supermodel famously said, “I don’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day”.

Less famously, the Commissioner for Uniform Legal Services Regulation and CEO of the Legal Services Council in March this year signed into operation (see s 407 of the Uniform Law) his pronouncements on the need for single figure costs estimates under the Uniform Law. (See the Legal Services Council’s Guideline and Direction – Costs Estimate – LSC 01/2016 and its almost identical CULSR twin, Guideline and Direction – Costs Estimate – CULSR 01/2016.)

Ms Evangelista was succinct and presumably did not need to elaborate.

Mr Boucher was less concise. And, as if the Uniform Law jigsaw needed still more pieces, he accompanied his pronouncements with three “worked examples” of how lawyers are required to provide “single figure” estimates to their clients for the purposes of the Uniform Law.

Look at the examples closely. Identifying a “single figure estimate” in any of them is like identifying a snowflake in a blizzard. Easy. And meaningless.

Nevertheless it seems that Mr Boucher considers single figure estimates are compulsory, even if they are as a consequence contrived, almost certain to be superseded, or premised upon tenuous guesses about the likely course of litigation.

Note particularly paragraph 8 of both Guidelines and Directions. Estimates may be provided as a “range of figures PROVIDED [original emphasis] that the law practice … always gives the single figure estimate of the total legal costs in the matter that section 174(1)(a) requires” [my underlining].

My copy of the Uniform Law contains the following version of s 174(1)(a):

A law practice—

(a)       must, when or as soon as practicable after instructions are initially given in a matter, provide the client with information disclosing the basis on which legal costs will be calculated in the matter and an estimate of the total legal costs…

I will give a prize to the first reader who can find in s174(1)(a) the requirement for a “single figure estimate” to which Mr Boucher is referring in his Guidelines and Directions. And not just any prize. It will be a colour, A4-sized photo portrait of either Ms Evangelista or Mr Boucher – your choice.

I have blogged about this silliness before but I was reminded of it at a seminar yesterday on the Uniform Law. Three speakers. Engaged audience. Useful discussion. But beyond the single slide of Linda Evangelista on display, not much clarity.

 

Uniform Law on costs

Are you a lawyer who likes getting paid?

Then if you are in Victoria or New South Wales you should know the provisions of the new Uniform Law as it relates to lawyers’ costs.

Here is a paper I have prepared on the subject.

I have also done two earlier blogs on the Uniform Law:

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)

Our dishevelled new Uniform Law

What a shambolic creature is the new Legal Profession Uniform Law.

I attempted to translate its provisions relating to costs disclosure and recovery in a presentation for the Goulburn Valley Law Association this week. I reckon I did a reasonably accurate job. I could tell this because my attentive audience seemed to be suitably irritated and confused by the end.

Anybody who claims an entirely confident understanding of the Uniform Law has obviously not read it properly.

By itself, the Uniform Law is frequently unintelligible without reference to the local (ie state) law which adopts it.Because of this, the Uniform Law in Victoria is actually a schedule to the zippily-named Legal Profession Uniform Law Application Act 2014.

This unattractive combination adds up to a combined total of approximately 570 pages and 120,000 words. And that’s before you reach for a third necessary document, the Legal Profession Uniform General Rules 2015 (and disregard other related subordinate legislation).

Between them, these three documents are ostensibly organised into various chapters, parts, divisions and schedules. Indeed, they seem to have more chapters than the Freemasons, more parts than Shakespeare, more divisions than Stalin and more schedules than V/Line. But you can’t be entirely sure because the centrepiece document, the Uniform Law itself, has no index whatsoever and the pagination doesn’t help.

That is bizarre in any legislation but particularly in something that presumably is meant to be accessible to, among others, disgruntled clients looking as lay people to the law for guidance about their rights and obligations vis-a-via their lawyers.

But given the sheer bulk of the Uniform Law package, it must be extraordinarily precise, right?

Wrong again.The mandarins responsible for administering it (for Victorians that means a combination of the Sydney-based Legal Services Council and the Melbourne-based Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner) have separate websites, each featuring information sheets for clients and for legal practitioners.

Alas, some of the Victorian Legal Services Board and Commissioner’s info appears to relate to superseded legislation and not to the Uniform Law at all.

And at least one of the Legal Services Council’s flyers makes the confident assertion that the Uniform Law “does not permit” lawyers to express estimated future costs to their clients as a range.

This “cost-estimates-must-not-be-expressed-as-a-range” view is an urban myth also gaining currency at high levels in Victoria.

But it is wrong. (Look, at least, at s 182(3) of the Uniform Law regarding conditional costs agreements and then look (in vain) for any prohibition on cost estimates being expressed as a range in other contexts.)

In August 2015, the Victorian Law Institute Journal breathlessly introduced the Uniform Law to its readers with a cover story entitled “Empowering Clients”. What nonsense. If any lay client can navigate the Uniform Law without professional assistance (which seems improbable) he/she would almost certainly have found (substantially) the same answers much faster under the now-repealed Legal Profession Act.

How did we get lumbered with the Uniform Law? It seemed a good idea to the Council of Australian Governments back in 2009 to have uniform nationwide legislation for the various jurisdictions’ barristers and solicitors. This might have made sense if most of our lawyers and clients were dealing with each other on a nation-wide basis.

But in the real world only substantial commercial and government clients generally operate on that basis. So guess which class of clients is largely excluded from the “protections” offered to clients by the costs provisions of the Uniform Law? You guessed it. Commercial and government clients.

What a mess. Little wonder that since the idea’s inception in 2009 every jurisdiction except Victoria and New South Wales has slipped off the Uniform Law bandwagon.

But enough venting from me.

I ended my Goulburn Valley Law Association presentation this week with what I hope are four practical observations:

  • As ever, costs are only recoverable by solicitors to the extent those costs are fair and reasonable. Costs agreements are prima facie evidence only as to what is fair and reasonable – see s 172(4).
  • Solicitors’ enforcement of costs agreements against clients hinge first and foremost on adequate costs disclosure at the front end. Position yourself to be able to demonstrate this. Employing the LIV’s template disclosure and costs agreement document will be a good start.
  • Even perfect front-end written costs disclosure of itself might still not be sufficient. For the purposes of s 174 of the Uniform Law, solicitors should ideally verify and document the client’s receipt and apparent comprehension of that written disclosure. (The Law Society of NSW suggests a short (and documented) Q & A exchange with the client about the client’s expectations as to costs and strategy following delivery of the written material as one mode of evidencing the client’s apparent understanding of that material.)
  • Perfect disclosure should ensure a valid costs agreement but even a perfect costs agreement isn’t bullet-proof either – see s 199 and s 200. Because of this, there will probably be situations where it will be fastest and cheapest for solicitors to grasp the nettle and initiate a costs assessment (aka a taxation) of their own bills rather than to sue for fees only to have their proceeding stayed pending an assessment anyway. But don’t think about this idea  too long if you are a solicitor because you might be statute-barred by s 198(4) if you wait more than 12 months from the date of your bill before seeking the costs assessment.

Need further clarification? Then reach for the Uniform Law with trepidation.