Generally, the best approach is to start by talking to your lawyer. In many cases, this will be all you need to do to resolve any issues or concerns you may have in relation to their bill or their costs. Once your lawyer understands why you are concerned, they will be able to explain the costs and may agree to review the bill.
If you are still not happy after talking with your lawyer, you may consider the suggestions below.
A lump sum bill usually summarises the work your lawyer has done on your behalf and gives the total amount charged for that work. An itemised bill lists each item of work that has been done and the amount charged for each item. You can request an itemised bill from your lawyer.
An itemised bill might help you work out which part(s) of the legal costs you are unhappy about. Your lawyer cannot charge for preparing the itemised bill, although it is possible that the total amount of the bill may increase once each piece of work is itemised.
If asked, your lawyer is required to give you an itemised bill and they must provide it within 28 days of being asked.
Costs assessment is a process where an independent person (a costs assessor) considers your legal bill and the objections you have to it. The costs assessor will decide what is a fair and reasonable amount for you to pay.
You can approach a costs assessor to carry out the assessment. However, any conclusions the costs assessor comes to will not be binding on the lawyer unless the costs assessment has been ordered by a court.
Binding costs assessment
For a court ordered, binding costs assessment, you will need to make an Application to the court for a costs assessment (see the information below).
Both you and your lawyer must agree on who is appointed costs assessor. If agreement cannot be reached, either the Court Registrar will appoint a costs assessor, or a Judge or Magistrate will appoint a costs assessor at a Directions Hearing. A list of approved costs assessors is maintained by the Courts and can be accessed at Queensland Courts.
A decision of the costs assessor is binding as it operates as an order of the court.
Strict time limits apply for resolving disagreements about legal costs.
You have 12 months to apply for a costs assessment from:
- when the bill was given to you or
- you were asked for payment, or
- when you paid the costs if you didn’t get a bill or a request to pay.
It is generally advisable to have an itemised bill for a costs assessment otherwise you will need to provide the best available information you have so the costs assessment can proceed.
Applying for a costs assessment
You can apply for a costs assessment even if you have paid all or part of your legal costs, or if you have paid them without receiving a bill.
The court you apply to will depend on the amount of the legal bill.
- Magistrates Court: if the bill doesn’t exceed $150,000
- District Court: if the bill exceeds $150,000 and doesn’t exceed $750,000
- Supreme Court: if the bill exceeds $750,000.
Within 7 days after filing your application you must serve a copy on your lawyer and any other person to whom the notice is to be given. Such other person could include an Executor, Administrator or Trustee or any other person or entity who is under a legal obligation to pay (or has paid) all or part of the legal costs.
The Courts requires the cost assessor to provide written consent. That consent is to be included with your Application. The consent form is to be signed and dated and the assessor will declare whether they are aware of any conflict of interest.
There is a fee for applying for costs assessment, but if the bill is reduced by 15 percent or more, or your lawyer is found to be at fault, your lawyer may be required to pay the costs of the assessment. However the Courts will require that you pay a separate fee when filing your application.
Assessment of costs
If you and your lawyer negotiated a ‘costs agreement’ early on, then the costs assessor must assess the disputed costs based on that agreement, as long as it specifies an amount or charge rate, or the agreement has not been set aside by an order of the Supreme Court.
The costs assessor must consider several things including:
- whether the work was required,
- whether it was carried out in a reasonable way and the fairness and reasonableness of the costs.
The assessor will also want to know if the law practice gave you a realistic estimate of the costs and kept you informed of any substantial changes to those costs.
Applying for a costs assessment even if the assessor finds in your favour, that does not mean you will not have to pay all or some of the legal bill. You may even be liable to pay a higher amount of legal costs if the costs are assessed as being higher than what the lawyer listed in their bill.
Referral to the Legal Services Commission
If the costs assessment results in a reduction of the bill by 15 percent, or it is found the costs are ‘grossly excessive’ or other matters are identified (e.g. conduct likely to amount to professional misconduct or unsatisfactory professional conduct), then a referral can be made to the Legal Services Commission for further investigation.
If the bill is reduced by 15 percent or more, or your lawyer is found to be at fault, your lawyer may be required to pay the costs of the assessment.
The forms required to make an application for a costs assessment can be downloaded and completed from the Courts website.
You can challenge the ‘costs agreement’ you made with your lawyer by applying to the Supreme Court.
It is recommended that you get legal advice from an independent source before you consider this option.
There may be other ways you can resolve your concerns about legal costs and you should seek independent legal advice.
It is important to note your lawyer can take court action against you if you don’t pay your bill. However, they must wait until:
- 30 days after giving you the bill or
- 30 days after giving you an itemised bill, if you have requested one, or
- after a costs assessment.
This information applies to costs for legal matters dealt with in Queensland except for certain family law matters being dealt with in the Family Court. The existing rules relating to the regulation of costs in the Family Court will continue for all pending matters and ongoing matters already filed in the Court before 1 July 2008.
For a dispute between a lawyer and a client about the costs charged by the lawyer in a family law matter:
(a) for a new application commenced after 30 June 2008 or
(b) under a new agreement between the lawyer and the client entered into after 30 June 2008 or
(c) under a retainer entered into with a new lawyer after 30 June 2008
then the regulation of the legal costs relationship with your lawyer will be governed by the following information. For further information visit the Family Court. .