A standards committee specialising in fee-related complaints has been granted permanent status by the Board of the New Zealand Law Society.
Standards committees are independent statutory committees that determine complaints against lawyers under the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006. Committees are made up of experienced lawyers and members of the public. They resolve around 1500 complaints per year.
The Law Society’s Lawyers Complaints Service (LCS) frequently receives fee-related complaints. A 2017 snapshot revealed 25% of complainants raised concerns about overcharging, either generally or by exceeding a fee estimate.
In October 2017 the Board established a pilot Standards Committee (the “Costs Committee”), aimed at improving the timeliness and efficiency of resolving fee-related complaints. Since its establishment, the Costs Committee has focussed on reducing the number of complaints requiring the appointment of an independent Costs Assessor.
Costs Assessors are lawyers who volunteer their time to review and report on the fees charged. While Costs Assessors perform an invaluable service, their appointment can extend the time needed to resolve a complaint.
The Costs Committee has sought to reduce the number of Cost Assessor appointments by allocating each complaint to a suitably qualified Committee member, to review the relevant fee matters on the Committee’s behalf. Costs Committee members from across the country have been recruited for their experience in a range of legal fields. This gives the Committee the breadth of expertise to assess most complaints.
The Costs Committee’s approach has resulted in far fewer referrals to Costs Assessors – to date only 2.5% of its cases have required a formal Cost Assessment, as opposed to 14% across other Standards Committees.
The Costs Committee has also increased its focus on mediation as a means of resolving fee-related complaints, with 18% of its complaints resolved via agreement between the parties. Susan Rowe, the Committee’s Convener, says fee-related complaints are often ideally suited to mediation.
"In many cases the complaint arises out of a lack of communication by the lawyer at the outset over the level of work needed to complete a file," she says.
"Mediation provides the client with an opportunity to express their concerns in person and gives the lawyer a chance to explain what work was completed. An apology given in person, or an offer to compromise on fees (even if relatively minor), goes a long way to resolving these disputes."
While it is pleasing to see an improvement in the resolution of fee-related complaints, in an ideal world these disputes would be resolved without the intervention of the LCS. The New Zealand Law Society recommends lawyers clearly set out their role and professional obligations at the start of a retainer, by summarising the key terms of engagement. This ensures clients know where they stand and what to expect from their lawyer. It can also facilitate open discussion and reduce the risk of disputes reaching the stage of a formal complaint. In 2017 the New Zealand Law Society published this article and model document, to assist lawyers in this regard.
The Costs Committee’s new measures have improved the timeliness of resolving fee-related complaints by 35% – a fantastic result. The lessons learned from the pilot will now be shared with all Standards Committee to improve their resolution of fee-related complaints. The New Zealand Law Society thanks those Committee members who were a part of the pilot and now continue as permanent members.