Thursday 23 November 2017

High Court judge hits out at 'enormous' fees being charged by legal teams

Mr Justice Max Barrett has slammed legal costs Picture: Tom Burke
Mr Justice Max Barrett has slammed legal costs Picture: Tom Burke
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

A High Court judge has said "enormous" fees charged by solicitors and barristers "point to a continuing deficiency in our legal system".

The comments were made by Mr Justice Max Barrett in a judgment involving a woman in her 70s who failed to pay legal fees of €176,433 arising from a land dispute. The judge called for a reassessment of the scale of fees regularly being charged by legal professionals.

It is the second time in recent months Mr Justice Barrett has highlighted legal fees as an issue of concern.

In a previous case he said a systemic solution was needed to tackle the "crushing cost" of High Court litigation.

The latest judgment, published this week, dealt with an application from Cavan-based solicitor Larry Burke, of Burke, Hunt & Co, for summary judgment against former client Maureen Lawless for fees owed to his firm and two barristers.

The judge said that while he had "natural sympathy" for Ms Lawless, who fears she will have to sell her home to pay the fees, he was "coerced as a matter of law" into acceding to the solicitor's application. Ms Lawless, as a competent adult, had freely engaged solicitors and barristers and had no defence against the application for summary judgment, he found.

However, while ruling against Ms Lawless, the judge was critical of the size of fees regularly being charged for legal representation.

"In the facts of this case, the court sees, yet again, a need for a more general reassessment of the appropriateness of the scale of legal fees that seem so regularly to be charged for legal representation," he said.

Mr Justice Barrett also said the case served "as a further reminder of the need for so-called ordinary people to be vigorously watchful of the costs that are incurred by them towards legal advisers in the course of legal proceedings".

Ms Lawless had engaged the solicitor in 2010 to represent her in a dispute over a land auction. She maintained that despite being the highest bidder, the land was not sold to her.

The court heard that apart from an initial down-payment of €5,000, she had not paid a cent for the "not un-extensive" legal work done on her behalf.

Legal proceedings were issued and senior and junior counsel were retained. Eventually the proceedings were settled, but not before Ms Lawless ran up legal fees of €176,433.

The court heard that a fees note issued to Ms Lawless in November 2011 indicated €120,000 in solicitors' fees, almost €40,000 in fees for a senior counsel and €24,000 for a junior counsel.

"These are enormous, though not at all untypical, fees which point to a continuing deficiency in our legal system," Mr Justice Barrett said. He added that "proper legal representation, at least in civil proceedings, is increasingly a boon that is properly affordable by the few who are rich, and a bane to be feared by the many who are not".

Mr Justice Barrett's comments come as preparations continue for the setting up of a new Legal Services Regulatory Authority, which Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald has pledged will help drive down the cost of accessing justice.

Irish Independent

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