If you feel that the charges made by a solicitor for dealing with the probate and estate administration of a loved one are too high, do you have a right to challenge them?
To determine the answer we would need to consider your standing in the legal agreement to carry out the work, what time has elapsed since the solicitor’s final bill was delivered and what elements of the charges are being challenged.
Legal costs are governed by The Solicitors Act 1974 (‘the Act’). Ordinarily the solicitor will have been instructed by the executor(s) of the estate. The executor is the client and if the costs of the solicitor are not fair and reasonable the client has a right to challenge them.
But what if you are not the client? What if you are a beneficiary of the estate and have not directly instructed the solicitor?
If the solicitor’s costs are payable by a party who isn’t a client then S71(1) of the Act allows that party to challenge the costs. Under this rule any residual beneficiary (the person entitled to the remainder of the estate once any liabilities, costs and specific gifts have been dealt with) will have a right to challenge. This is because the legal fees are paid from the estate and are essentially deducted from any residuary beneficiary’s share of the estate.
Further, if you are a non-residuary beneficiary you have a specific entitlement to challenge a solicitor’s fees contained within the Legal Ombudsman’s Scheme Rules.
So, you can challenge the solicitor’s bill as long as you are the client who appointed them or a beneficiary of the estate.
Under s70 of the Act you can apply to the court for an assessment of the final bill.
The court proceedings are in two stage:
In deciding entitlement the court will consider the time lapse since the solicitor’s final bill was delivered and whether or not it has been paid.
* Discretionary – the court will consider any special circumstances and the right to assessment may be subject to conditions (e.g. payment into Court of part or all of the disputed amount)
Once the court is satisfied that the applicant is entitled to make the application it will make an Order for assessment. A procedure is then followed dictating the disclosure of a detailed breakdown of the solicitor’s costs, the documentation of the points of dispute and replies to them, which leads to the assessment hearing.
At the assessment hearing the court will consider what work the solicitor did and how much they charged for it and balance it against what work it would have been reasonable for them to have done and how much it would have been reasonable for them to have charged for that work. If the court assesses a lower figure for the costs then that will be the sum the estate pays (less any sum already paid). If the sums already paid are greater than the assessed bill then the solicitor will be ordered to pay back the difference.
Applying for an assessment of a solicitor’s bill involves costs. There are court costs associated with the application and the costs of legal representation. The normal rule in proceedings is that the losing party pays the costs of the winning party in addition to their own. However, this is a special case and if the solicitor’s bill is not reduced by 20% or more you will have to pay the costs of the assessment.
If you think that the estate of your loved one is being reduced unfairly by an unreasonable legal fee we can help. In most cases that we take on, we are able to offer our services on a no win no fee basis.