23 November 2017
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No recommended fee structures for lawyers’ work, but stringent rules govern lawyers’ conduct: Law Society: Voices

07 Nov 2017

The Law Society refers to the letter “A more neutral platform to handle errant lawyers, fee guidelines needed“ (Nov 3).

In a nutshell, the writer recounts his personal experience of approaching more than 20 law firms and engaging five different law firms on his personal case, but was ultimately unable to find legal representation. At this juncture, the writer’s complaint on legal fees and lawyers’ integrity remains vague and unsubstantiated.

Lawyers have a fundamental ethical obligation to act in the best interests of his or her client, charge fairly for work done, and state the fee arrangements in writing pursuant to the Legal Profession (Professional Conduct) Rules.

Clients have a corresponding duty to satisfy themselves that they understand the fee arrangements before they agree to it. Misunderstandings should not solely be attributable to lawyers.

Legal fees are typically charged based on the actual work done for the client. This will vary from case to case.

In determining a fair and reasonable fee, relevant considerations include:

a.            the complexity of the matter;

b.            the time spent on the matter;

c.             the amount or value of any money or property involved;

d.            the number of documents or correspondence prepared or perused; and

e.            the skill and specialised knowledge of the lawyer(s).

These factors are unique to the facts of the matter and vary from case to case, particularly in contentious matters.

There are non-binding costs guidelines issued by the Supreme Court that provide a general indication on the quantum and methodology of Supreme Court litigation costs.

However, in line with Singapore competition law, there are currently no recommended fee structures for lawyers’ fees.

In any dispute on legal fees between the client and the lawyer, a client has recourse via either taxation or mediation.

Taxation is a judicial process to determine the reasonableness of the legal fee. Under the “Cost Dispute Resolve” scheme administered by the Law Society, mediation between the lawyer and client is an available avenue. Clients have a right to tax their bills and lawyers are obliged to inform their clients of this right. There are professional conduct rules that buttress a lawyers’ ethical obligations in respect of the fee issues briefly outlined in the writer’s letter.

The writer has not proffered any basis to contend why the Law Society is not “the most appropriate and neutral platform to oversee the conduct of members of their own profession”.

Complaint procedures against lawyers are transparently set out in the Legal Profession Act (“the Act”).

The Inquiry Panel, investigating complaints against lawyers, is an independent panel of persons appointed under the Act comprising lawyers, legal officers and lay persons.

The empanelled Inquiry Committee to inquire into a complaint is a neutral, fact-finding committee.

Under the Act, a dissatisfied complainant also has recourse to the High Court to review the Law Society Council’s decision to accept a recommendation by the Inquiry Committee to dismiss a complaint. There are adequate checks and balances within the present regime.

There are clearly outlined and stringent ethical regulations governing the conduct of legal practitioners.

Any client can lay a complaint against a lawyer believed to be acting improperly. There are available accessible channels for the writer to relay legitimate grievances via the Law Society via our Conduct Department. We do not have any record that the writer has done so to date.

Lawyers have been playing a critical role in facilitating access to justice. Many take up pro bono cases. Significant numbers selflessly give of their time, talent and treasure to society.

It would be unfair and disproportionate for the general reputation of Singapore lawyers to be tarnished by unsubstantiated complaints that ought to go through due process.

Shawn Toh

Director, Communications, The Law Society of Singapore

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