High Court: Woman loses appeal over €232,000 legal bill charged in family proceedings
The High Court has dismissed an appeal against a decision by the Legal Services Regulatory Authority (LSRA) regarding a €232,000 legal bill charged by a solicitor in family law proceedings. The appellant had claimed that the fees were excessive and that she had expected the fees to be approximately €30,000.
About this case:
- Citation: IEHC 315
- Court:High Court
- Judge:Mr Justice Anthony Barr
Delivering judgment in the case, Mr Justice Anthony Barr held that the appeal confined to dealing with errors of law made by the LSRA and that there was ample evidence to support a finding that adequate services had been provided by the solicitor. The correct response to any issue of excessive fees was to refer the matter to a legal costs adjudicator, the court held.
The appellant had engaged the solicitor to represent her family law proceedings where she separated from her former husband. The family proceedings were lengthy, complex and involved high value assets.
In October 2017, the solicitor issued a “section 68 letter” which outlined an estimate of the fees that were to be charged. It included a brief fee estimate of €30,000 plus €3,500 for each additional day in court. The letter also outlined that separate fees would be charged for each court appearance and that outlay would be payable to third parties.
The appellant signed an undertaking to pay all the fees charged to her by the solicitors and which outlined the proposed fees of counsel. At the conclusion of the proceedings, the solicitor’s fees amounted to €76,500 while outlay came to €115,175. When VAT was included, the total bill came to €232,900.
Subsequently, the appellant made a complaint to the LSRA in respect of the fees. She made a number of assertions, which included that the solicitor had agreed to only charge €30,000, that she had never been kept informed about the fees being incurred and that the solicitor had not done a great deal of work in the case.
Further, it was alleged that the solicitor had wilfully withheld a letter from solicitors representing her brothers-in-law for four months in order to prolong the proceedings. It was also said that the general standard of service was not adequate.
The solicitor made submissions to the LSRA and rejected each of the assertions made by the appellant. It was pointed out, inter alia, that the section 68 letter made clear the fees to be charged, that the solicitor never agreed to only charge €30,000 and that the letter relating to the brothers-in-law was not relevant to the separation proceedings.
The LSRA made a determination in March 2022 in which it was held that the legal services were of adequate standard and that the amount of costs were not excessive. The solicitor had accounted for the costs and the appellant had undertaken to pay them. A Review Committee also determined that the services and fees were satisfactory.
As such, the appellant appealed to the High Court. The appellant, a litigant-in-person, restated her grounds of complaint made to the LSRA and review committee. She contended that the review committee was mistaken in its conclusion. She also “complained bitterly” about how the outcome of the judicial separation proceedings had not been as good as she wished and that the legal fees were the final straw which destroyed her life.
Mr Justice Barr began by stating that the appellant appeared to conflate “many aspects of her litigation and the unhappy ending of her marriage and the separate land dispute between her husband and his brothers, in arriving at the conclusion that she has been greatly injured in life”. The view that this was “all the fault of the solicitor” was “unfounded both in law and in fact”.
The court also accepted the submission of the LSRA that the appeal was confined to assessing errors of law on the part of the review committee. A decision had to be vitiated by “serious and significant error” before the appellant could succeed, the court said (see FitzGibbon v. Law Society of Ireland  1 IR 516; Manorcastle Ltd v. Commission for Aviation Regulation  3 IR 495).
The court went on to hold that the review committee did not make any error of law. It was noted that the committee had extensive documentation before it and there was ample evidence to establish that the complaint was unfounded. There was also evidence that the solicitor had acted diligently in preparing the case for hearing.
The claim that the appellant had not been informed about the progress of the case was undercut by her own statement that she attended the office on a weekly basis. There was no evidence to support the assertion that the solicitor had conspired to prolong the case by withholding correspondence.
The court also referred to the significant reliefs obtained by the appellant in the judgment from Ms Justice Faherty following an eight-day trial.
In terms of the excessive fees, the appellant had received the section 68 letter and the fees were charged in line with the scale in the letter. The court emphasised that the review committee was not adjudicating on the reasonableness of the fees, which was the jurisdiction of the legal costs adjudicator.
The court acknowledged the primacy of a legal costs adjudicator in determining the reasonableness of fees and noted that litigation was almost unique insofar as lawyers could not definitively say how much a case would cost at the outset of proceedings.
While a detailed bill of costs was not presented to the appellant in this case, it was permissible for the solicitor to issue a short-form fee note. This was done in this case. However, all clients are entitled to request a detailed break down of the legal fees, the court said.
The appellant was further protected that she could call for the adjudication of fees and this was the correct avenue for redress where she claimed excessive fees.
Accordingly, the appellant’s appeal was dismissed as she had not shown that the review committee’s decision was vitiated by error.
LL v. Legal Services Regulatory Authority  IEHC 315