The Legal Services Council’s inaugural guideline and direction deals with lawyers’ costs disclosure obligations. Simply put, we are required to provides single figure estimates of our costs. But even the guideline and direction seems to recognize that things will rarely be that simple…

Precisely what costs estimate does the Uniform Law require of lawyers? The Legal Services Council has just issued its first official guideline and direction on this question.

It has an almost identical twin (here) issued the same day by the Commissioner for Uniform Legal Services Regulation. The two guidelines are accompanied on the Legal Services Council website by a document containing three “worked examples” of acceptable costs disclosure.

Together these three documents are intended to give guidance to the costs disclosure obligations imposed on Victorian and NSW lawyers by s 174(1) of the Uniform Law. They might improve your estimates, but they are unlikely to improve your overall estimation of the new Uniform Law regime.

First, a quick refresher on the Uniform Law itself. It requires lawyers’ costs to be fair and reasonable (s 172) and voids lawyers’ costs agreements wherever, inter alia, costs have not been properly disclosed to the client (s 178(1)). The starting point for that requirement is the much-maligned s 174 –

174 Disclosure obligations of law practice regarding clients

(1) Main disclosure requirement

A law practice—

(a) must, when or as soon as practicable after instructions are initially given in a matter, provide the client with information disclosing the basis on which legal costs will be calculated in the matter and an estimate of the total legal costs; and

(b) must, when or as soon as practicable after there is any significant change to anything previously disclosed under this subsection, provide the client with information disclosing the change, including information about any significant change to the legal costs that will be payable by the client —

together with the information referred to in subsection (2).

The two new guidelines and directions are substantively identical with the effect that their shortcomings and the demands on the reader’s time are duplicated but their meaning is not.

Both guidelines and directions state that –

  • the estimate required by s 174 “is a reasonable approximation of the total costs a client is likely to have to pay in the matter for which instructions have been given, expressed as a single figure, from time to time…”[emphasis added]
  • the provision of additional information to clients beyond that required by s 174 “should be encouraged” and that further information about likely costs might be “expressed as a single figure or as a range of figures, PROVIDED [original emphasis] the law practice always gives the single figure estimate of the total legal costs in the matter that s 174(1)(a) requires.”
  • “It is permissible and may be desirable to preface a single figure estimate with the word ‘about’ to reflect the fact that the figure is an estimate and is not a fixed fee.”

Note the brave but dubious assertion that s 174(1)(a) of the Uniform Law requires “a single figure estimate.” Now turn to the “worked examples” which accompany the guidelines and see how the three examples illustrate how the “single figure estimate” concept can (and it seems should) be routinely subverted.

The first example is a debt recovery matter. It begins with instructions to the lawyer only to issue a letter of demand (for which a single figure estimate is given) and culminates (after a series of presumably ascending single figure estimates) in litigation including a cross claim whereupon the “lawyer indicates that the [most recent] estimated figure might vary by +/- 10 per cent”.

This is surely incongruous. It seems that the Legal Services Council believes that the pro-active lawyer who advised her client on day one that a debt claim might resolve quickly after a letter of demand or might run all the way to the conclusion of complex litigation and therefore cost in the range of, say, $500 – $15,000 depending on those variables will have comprehensively breached her disclosure obligations under s 174 of the Uniform Law. On the other hand, the dullard solicitor who plods blindly down the road towards litigation, giving his client only a series of single-figure cost estimates to the conclusion of the very next step, is supposedly satisfying the obligations of s 174.

There is more. Each of the three “worked examples” published with the guidelines and directions includes an estimate with a stated percentage deviation range. There is something ridiculous about lawyers being prohibited from estimating costs to clients as a range (e.g. $850 to $1150) while being simultaneously encouraged to provide precisely the same information expressed as a mathematical formula (e.g. $1000 +/- 15 per cent).

There is a warning that the percentage deviation figures are “an illustration only and do not alter the obligation to provide a single figure estimate nor is it intended to encourage an unreasonably broad estimate”. This invites the question of what percentage deviation is “unreasonably broad.” It seems from one of the examples that “plus or minus 15 per cent” might be reasonable. What about plus or minus 30 per cent? Or 50 per cent? Or 100 per cent? As judged by whom? When?

Alas, for the moment we can only guess.

Finally, a word about the legal status of these official pronouncements. Under s 407 of the Uniform Law, the Legal Services Council and the Commissioner for Uniform Legal Services may each issue “guidelines or directions”. Local regulatory authorities (eg the Victorian Legal Services Commissioner and Victorian Legal Services Board) must comply with such directions (s 407(1)) and hence the directions have the status of subordinate legislation. But the status of the guidelines incorporated in the same documents is less clear. Presumably the guidelines and the worked examples will have persuasive effect at least with the various costs assessors required to adjudicate on the adequacy of lawyers’ costs disclosure.