A senior costs judge has ruled that a client should be allowed a closer analysis of 14 invoices issued by her solicitors over the course of a year.
Master Gordon-Saker said the monthly bills rendered by Sittingbourne firm Ratcliffes Solicitors, which came to just over £13,000 without VAT, ‘seem to require explanation’. He added that the firm’s argument that the divorce client was ‘demanding’ could not be proved without more information about communication with her.
In Iwuanyawu v Ratcliffes Solicitors the court heard that Genevieve Iwuanyawu had sought an order for the detailed assessment of 14 bills presented by the firm, some of which had been delivered more than a year previously.
The parties disagreed over whether the firm’s bills contained enough information to be classed as bills, and if they did, whether the firm was entitled to render interim statute bills. It was accepted that if 12 months had passed since the delivery of a bill, special circumstances were required to justify a detailed assessment.
The firm said it had a contractual right to render interim bills, which were issued at the end of each month over the duration of the retainer between October 2018 and October 2019. The client care letter from October 2018 stated that the client would be invoiced for charges and disbursements every month while the matter was in progress. Iwuanyawu was told she should pay bills within 30 days but she had the right to challenge or complain. A section headed ‘complaints’ set out the firm’s internal procedure and possibility of complaining to the legal ombudsman, but not the right to seek assessment by the court.
The master said these terms did not enable the firm to submit interim statute bills, and it was expressly stated that invoices would be final bills for the periods they covered. The solicitors were entitled to deliver monthly invoices ‘for our charges and disbursements’ but there was nothing agreed that such invoices should be self-contained bills.
He added: ‘If a solicitor wishes to reserve a right to deliver interim statute bills which are intended to be final for the periods that they cover, as opposed to requests for payment on account, that right must be spelled out clearly in the contract with the client. In this case it was not.’
The master said that a client receiving monthly invoices may well have no idea whether she would wish to challenge them until she has received several of them, or her case had concluded. In most cases it was ‘unrealistic’ to expect a client to be able to challenge her own solicitors’ bills in the middle of matrimonial proceedings.