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Law Association says don’t Judge Lawyers’ Fees by State Briefs

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THE Law Association of Trinidad and Tobago (LATT) says that the legal fees for certain transactions were fixed by law and it “deprecates” the charging of exorbitant fees by its members.

LATT was responding to the head of the Law Faculty of the St Augustine Campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI) Profession Rose-Marie Belle Antoine who said that fees charged by lawyers in Trinidad and Tobago were too high.

Professor Rose-Marie Belle Antoine

She made the comment while delivering the feature address at the Interfaith Service of the opening of the 2019/2020 Law Term on Monday.

In a response dated September 18, LATT said it “deprecates in no uncertain terms the charging of exorbitant fees by any member of the profession to any unwilling client.”

It pointed out that legal fees for property transactions and estate matters were fixed by law.

With relation to estate matters, LATT stated that such fees were tied to the value of properties being transferred and have not been revised since 1997.

It said that legal fees in civil litigation were subject to Practice Directions of the Chief Justice which provides guidelines to charging fees.

LATT added, “Further, the general rule in civil litigation is that costs that are recoverable by a successful party are determined by a prescribed scale which is set out in the Civil Proceedings Rules and which, in turn, is tied to the value of the subject matter of the litigation.”

LATT stated, “While civil litigation often involves the engagement of a specialist trial attorney in addition to an instructing attorney, the rates chargeable in respect of the taking of instructions are lower than those chargeable in respect of appearances in Court.

“Accordingly, when an experienced trial attorney is retained in a matter, the use of a specialist instructing attorney for the taking of instructions tends to lower the costs to the client, which would be considerably higher if the trial attorney were required to cover the taking of instructions as well as appearances at Court.

“In any event, in relation to most civil litigation, it is in the client’s interest to retain both an instructing and a trial attorney since the functions performed by each of them is distinct and of a specialised nature.

“Civil matters valued at less than $50,000 must be pursued in the Petty Civil Courts where the costs recoverable and the costs charged to clients are considerably less than those recovered and charged in the High Court.

“As regards the accessibility of legal services, it is important to note that in litigation matters, many attorneys charge for their services at rates that are well below those stipulated in the guidelines given by the Courts.

“Moreover, there are many attorneys who take on matters pro bono and who volunteer their time through legal clinics and other forms of outreach.

“Attorneys are not currently allowed by law to provide their services on a contingency basis (an arrangement by which the attorney’s charges are contingent upon the success of the litigation).

“This is a recommendation that the LATT has put to the Honourable Attorney General for consideration.”

LATT said the fees charged by the vast majority of attorneys should not be judges by the “highly publicised accounts of fees paid by the state.”

It said the majorty of attorneys were not fortunate enough to receive state briefs.

“Indeed, the vast majority of attorneys are themselves struggling to make ends meet in a profession which is now greatly oversubscribed. We are not aware of any comparative regional or even national study of the fees which attorneys charge which may have informed Professor Antoine’s opinion that local fees are higher than our counterparts elsewhere in the region,” the release stated.

LATT said attorney were not immune from criticism.

It added, “When criticism is due, the LATT will act.”

LATT said, “We do not for one moment suggest that the profession is free of attorneys who overcharge their clients at rates in excess of the judicial guidelines.

“It is however grossly unfair to taint the many honest, hardworking and devoted attorneys with unsubstantiated, generalised and publicity catching statements.

“We remind members of the public that the charging of ‘unfair or unreasonable’ fees is prohibited by clause 10 of Part B of the Code of Ethics which governs the legal profession and amounts to professional misconduct.

“Attorneys who charge ‘unfair or unreasonable’ fees are therefore susceptible to disciplinary action upon complaint by any aggrieved party before the Disciplinary Committee.”

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