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Article by Guest Contributor

It is one thing to be aware that attorneys’ fees are high, it is another to feel ripped off by your attorney.  The question is, if you feel ripped off as opposed to being charged high fees which are fair, what must you do?

Query the attorney

If you feel that your attorney’s fees are too high, or exorbitant, query it with the attorney him-/herself.  Do not simply withhold paying the bill, because the attorney is going to sue you to collect.  Sometimes it is simply a matter of not understanding attorneys’fees, sometimes there is a mistake on the fees charged, and sometimes you can negotiate with the attorney.   

What to do if you don’t get the right answer

If you still feel that the attorney’s fees are too high and the explanation you got is not sufficient, you are entitled to ask to have the statement taxed.  The attorney must then prepare a statement by listing item for item each charge.  Each item must have a date and a short explanation of the reason for the charge.  The principle is that the fees charges must be in accordance with the prescribed fees by the Law Society

The statement is taxed by the taxing master, who is an employee at the court (each High Court as well as the Magistrate’s Court have their own taxing masters).  A taxing master is a person  who is specifically trained to do the taxing of bills.  The taxing of a bill means that you (or an attorney if you want to appoint one) as well as the attorney who’s statement it is, arrives at the offices of the taxing master on a certain date and time which have been pre-arranged.  It is pre-arranged by the attorney who issued the statement, by phoning the taxing master and obtaining a date and time.  You then get served a notice of taxation, which will give you the time and date of when the bill will be taxed. If the attorney refuses/neglects to get the statement taxed, you can also arrange with the taxing master for a date and time to have the bill taxed and you will then give the attorney the notice of taxation.

To tax a bill, means that you and the attorney can argue about the items on the statement in front of the taxing master.  You can say why the attorney is not entitled to the item and the attorney can say why he is entitled to the item.  The taxing master makes the final decision as to whether the attorney is entitled to the item or not.

Once the items that are not allowed to be charged (if any) are deducted from the total balance, 5% is added to the total.  This is an amount the attorney is entitled to be paid for his appearance at taxing the bill.  Another 5% is added for the drafting of the statement.  Some statements can be 30 or 40 pages long, depending on the amount of work that was done. You are liable to pay the total of this statement.

You cannot complain to the taxing master that you don’t owe the money.  The purpose of taxing the bill is merely to determine which fees that the attorney has charged he is entitled to and which not. You  liable to pay the balance that is determined at the end of the taxation.  If you think that you do not owe the monies at all, then that is a different matter and taxation will not solve your problem.  Read further to see what you must do then.

What to do if feel you do not owe the attorney any fees

If you still feel that the attorney’s fees are too high after the taxation, or if you feel that he/she is not entitled to the fees because he/she did not do any work (be careful before you make this decision that you are correct), then you can refuse pay the attorney’s statement.  Taxation will not solve this problem, you have to defend a summons that the attorney will issue against you.

Unless the attorney really delivered terrible or unethical or no service, it is not advised that you enter into litigation with an attorney about his/her fees.  It would be better to take the matter up with the attorney first and see if you cannot resolve the issues.  If you can’t, and you still feel that way, then you have to wait for the attorney to issue summons against you.  It would also be advisable to tell the attorney that you are not going to pay his fees because of whatever your reason is that you don’t want to pay it. Do it in writing and keep it as you will need it for your court case.

When you receive the summons, you can defend the matter and wait until the hearing to give a magistrate/judge your side of the story.  The court will not easily find against an attorney’s statement, unless you have sufficient proof that the attorney is not entitled to the fees.

Make sure your emotions are justified

Sometimes when attorneys are instructed to handle a matter, the facts are negative and the attorney cannot get a good result for a client, despite his/her best efforts.  It often happens that if the client loses his/her case, or doesn’t get the result he/she wanted, the first thing the client does is to blame the attorney, and then complain about the attorney’s fees. If the attorney wins (because he/she had a good set of facts to work with in the first place) the client is usually happy to pay the attorney’s bill.  It pays to make sure that your feelings that the attorney’s fees are too high are justified, and that you don’t feel disgruntled because you did not get the result you wanted.

 Law Society

Of course, there are sometimes attorneys who ask you to pay an amount but never give you a statement or refuse to give you a statement.  In terms of the Law Society rules, an attorney is obliged to give a client a statement if the client asks for it.  By the way, the attorney is also obliged to give a receipt after payment if the client asks for it.  Not all attorneys give receipts if you don’t ask for it, but if you do, they are obliged to give it. 

The Law Society is the watch dog of attorneys and if you are unhappy with an attorney’s fees, and he/she does not want to give you a statement or does not want to agree to taxation, you can also report the matter to the Law Society who must then deal with the matter on your behalf.  It is better however to resolve the issue with the attorney directly than to go to the Law Society. It can take a long time for the Law Society to handle the matter and you may not get the result you wish for.

Regular statements

 If you end up with a high statement at the end of a case, it is so much more difficult to handle the problem than it would have been if the matter of fees and statements were addressed during the first consultation.  Ask your attorney to give you monthly statements.  Stay up to date with payments.  There is nothing so bad as to run with a matter, especially a high court matter, and then suddenly receive  a statement for a few hundred thousand rand that you did not foresee.  Especially in high court matters it is advisable that you receive and pay weekly bills.  Prevention is better than cure.

You might also be interested in Contingency Fee Agreements