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Legal costs and protecting consumer rights

On World Consumer Rights Day, we take a look at why legal costs feature so strongly in complaints made against Victorian lawyers. The actual cause is probably not what you would expect. Read our article to find out.

Today, 15 March 2020, is World Consumer Rights Day. 60 years ago today, US President John F Kennedy first outlined a vision for the rights of consumers. This effectively gave rise to today's consumer rights movement.

As Victoria's legal profession regulator, one of our main aims is to protect and empower consumers of legal services. We want them to make informed choices about engaging a lawyer, and to understand what they get for their money. We also encourage lawyers to understand their clients’ consumer rights by giving them options they can choose from, providing clear information, and offering a high-quality service at a price the client agrees is fair.

Clients don’t always get what they feel they deserve. Each year the most common problems that consumers raise with our office involve disputes over legal costs. Last year 49% of all allegations made in complaints were about what the lawyer charged for their work.

But the fundamental issue is often not about the money. In many cases we find that it is the quality of communication between the lawyer and their client that ultimately leads to complaints.

Here’s a list of the most common reasons why legal costs are disputed:

  • The final cost of the work is not clear
  • The estimated costs changed significantly at a crucial point, but the circumstances appear unchanged
  • The client and the lawyer didn’t reach a common understanding of the work, time and cost involved in the matter so the client thinks the work is not good value for money
  • The client doesn’t get enough information and feels unsupported through a very difficult time
  • The lawyer charges a full unit for every little attendance
  • The overall cost is disproportionate to the value of the matter and what the lawyer has been able to achieve for the client.

The good news is these problems can be avoided. Communication is the key. Here’s what lawyers can do to empower their clients and improve the relationship:

  • Start the matter well: understand the client’s situation and goals, manage expectations, explore their options and agree on a range of acceptable outcomes
  • Clearly explain the work you are doing and how you are charging for it
  • Where possible, consider moving to an agreed (fixed or subscription) pricing model so there is no ‘bill shock’ (see the links below)
  • Follow up a discussion with a written explanation using language and concepts that the client will understand – and check that they do understand.  Think of it as providing a road map for the client
  • Make regular times to check in with your client and keep them up to date.

Lawyers should remember that for a client, the experience of working with a lawyer can be daunting, especially for those who find themselves in a vulnerable situation.

We continue to undertake research to understand the root causes of client complaints, which helps us to enhance our guidance to the legal profession.

Want more information?

Here’s a few handy resources explaining how lawyers can to develop the best working relationship with their clients.

Information about billing and costs disclosures

Innovating in pricing 

Avoiding complaints

Ten things I hate about you: How to avoid costs complaints (article featured in the Australian Lawyers' Alliance journal, Precedent, Edition 37 [2014]

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