My lawyer is overcharging me! What can I do?

Last updated on June 5, 2013

The legal industry in Singapore is predominantly inclined towards two general sorts of fee payments – flat fees and hourly fees. Flat fees are generally charged for single, defined, tasks, such as will drafting, or property transactions. Hourly billing is used for more complex matters, such as litigation, since it shifts the risk from the solicitor to the client in case the length and complexity of the process exceeds expectations.

Pursuant to the Legal Profession Act (the ‘LPA’), a solicitor remuneration for non-contentious matters must be fair and reasonable, factoring into account the following circumstances:

  1. the importance of the matter to the client;
  2. the skill, labour, specialised knowledge and responsibility involved on the part of the solicitor;
  3. the complexity of the matter and the difficulty or novelty of the question raised;
  4. where money or property is involved, the amount or value thereof;
  5. the time expended by the solicitor;
  6. the number and importance of the documents prepared or perused, without regard to length; and
  7. the place where, and the circumstances under which, the services or business or any part thereof are rendered or transacted

With regards to contentious matters, such as litigation, the following factors are relevant in terms of determining solicitor remuneration:

  1. the complexity of the item or of the cause or matter in which it arises and the difficulty or novelty of the questions involved;
  2. the skill, specialised knowledge and responsibility required of, and the time and labour expended by, the solicitor;
  3. the number and importance of the documents (however brief) prepared or perused;
  4. the place and circumstances in which the business involved is transacted;
  5. the urgency and importance of the cause or matter to the client; and
  6. where money or property is involved, its amount or value

Fees incurred must also be proportionate to the subject matter of dispute.

Agreements are prevalently entered into by the solicitor and client with regards to fee payments, calculations, limits, and refundability. Agreements commonly stipulate fixed fees, non-refundable retainers (forfeited if the lawyer’s service is terminated prematurely), or time billing. These agreements, in relation to contentious and non-contentious matters, may be challenged and voided if they fall below statutory standards of fairness and reasonableness.

Stipulations as to the payment of contingency fees (whereby the lawyer’s remuneration is pegged to the amount awarded to the client) are forbidden by the LPA and the Legal Profession (Professional Conduct) Rules.

Part IX of the LPA offers the possibility of taxation, giving clients the option to submit their bill of costs for assessment if they suspect that their lawyer has overcharged them unfairly. The High Court in the case of Law Society of Singapore v Andre Ravindran Saravanapavan Arul ruled that lawyers had an obligation to inform their clients of such a right. However, either the client or his lawyer must obtain an order for taxation within one year from bill delivery. Taxation after one year from bill delivery will not be permitted in lieu of exceptional circumstances.

If litigation is involved, a losing client who is ordered by the court to pay the other’s party costs may also apply for taxation if he disputes the quantum of the other party’s legal costs.

Under-served clients who are dissatisfied with their lawyer’s service or professionalism may lodge a complaint of “Inadequate Professional Service”, and any impropriety may be remedied by an order of fee refund.

The Law Society of Singapore does not issue quantitative fee guidelines for lawyers. Instead, regulations are qualitative, requiring fair charging while forbidding gross overcharging and improper costs. Moreover, other provisions in the regulations impose mandatory disclosure obligations requiring the lawyer to breakdown, justify, and evaluate the costs of his services, and to provide estimations, limits (if the client so desires), and regular updates of the same.

If you are dissatisfied with your lawyer’s service or the bill delivered, you should contact your lawyer to voice your concerns, and request an itemised bill. Additionally, you may also contact the Law Society of Singapore or a Community Legal Clinic to seek further redress.