“The process of transferring the family farm to myself and my sibling is nearing completion. Our parents’ solicitor recently issued a bill for nearly €30,000 (VAT inclusive). Our own solicitor is charging us €7,000 (VAT inclusive). We are told that we have to pay our parents fees, which we have no issue with in principle, but we cannot see how he can justify such a fee. There was no prior indication or guideline of what it would come to. Is there a mechanism such as an independent arbitrator to help resolve this? What, in your experience, are reasonable rates to expect in farm succession costs? Is there any legal body that solicitors can be held accountable for overcharging?”
The complaints system about solicitors was overhauled a couple of years ago with the establishment of the independent Legal Services Regulatory Authority (LSRA).
From 7 October 2019, complaints about a solicitor should be referred to the LSRA. Prior to this, complaints were handled by the Law Society of Ireland.
Fee estimate – known as S150 Notice
All solicitors are obliged by law to set out in advance the legal services to be provided and the likely costs of the services. This is called a “S150 notice” or “costs notice”. It is often accompanied by a letter of engagement. If your solicitor is not in a position to provide you with detailed information on the exact legal costs that will apply, they must still set out the basis of how legal costs will be calculated such as hourly rate.
Your solicitor is also required to update you in writing as soon as he or she is aware of the actual charges that you will face. Once you have the costs notice there is a cooling off period of up to 10 days during which services are suspended, unless you give authority for the solicitor to proceed with the legal work in the interim.
It would appear that your parents never received this costs notice and the solicitor will have to explain this as part of the complaints procedure.
Bill of costs and complaints
Once the work is completed, a bill of costs will be issued. Sometimes, solicitors issue interim bills where the work is carried out over a period of time. The bill of costs should give a breakdown of all the charges, including the professional fee, VAT and outlay.
If you are not satisfied with any aspect of the bill, you have 21 days to write to your solicitor setting out the details of your concern. If you and your solicitor cannot resolve the issue, you can complain to the LSRA about inadequate service and/or excessive costs which must be done within three years of receiving the bill of costs.
You could make a complaint to the LSRA on behalf of your parents, but the LSRA will generally require the written consent of your parents for you to pursue the matter on their behalf. The LSRA will offer to resolve the complaint informally through mediation. Complaints which are considered by the LSRA to fit the criteria for misconduct are investigated by a complaints committee. Charging grossly excessive costs is considered misconduct.
If you choose not to engage in mediation or if mediation fails, the LSRA will write to you and the solicitor asking for a statement setting out your position in relation to the complaint. The LSRA will then make a determination regarding the complaint, ie decide whether there is evidence of inadequate service or excessive costs or both. If your complaint is upheld, the LSRA will decide what direction should be made to the solicitor, both parties will be notified and given an opportunity to appeal that decision to a review committee.
There is no specific guide as to what to charge for this type of work. It is up to each individual solicitor, who generally has regard to factors such as:
Based on my own experience, the fees would seem excessive having regard to the bill of costs you sent me which set out the work done by your parents solicitor. The fee charged by your own solicitor would seem reasonable.
The common law allows a solicitor to exercise a lien which is a solicitor’s right to keep a client’s property until the client has paid the solicitor’s fees and disbursements. It follows that a solicitor is not obliged to allow inspection of a file if his costs and outlays have not been paid. A lien can be set aside by court order or by a direction of the LSRA.
Failing being able to agree a figure with your parents solicitor, it maybe the case that you will have to discharge the fee to complete the transaction and thereafter complain to the LSRA and if they uphold the complaint the solicitor will have to refund/waive all or part of the fee.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is intended as a general guide only. While every care is taken to ensure accuracy of information contained in this article, Aisling Meehan, Agricultural Solicitors does not accept responsibility for errors or omissions howsoever arising. Email firstname.lastname@example.org