THE head of the New South Wales legal professional body has defended time billing, and claims general criticisms of it do not take into account that most solicitors understand their obligation to charge fair and reasonable fees.
Labelling "strident criticism" of time billing as "exaggerated", NSW Law Society president Stuart Westgarth said this week said complaints about overcharging are statistically low.
Available statistics on billing practices and on whether there is wide-spread abuse show that there are 24,900 solicitors in New South Wales. Westgarth notes that "it must be the case the case that a huge number of bills are issued by solicitors annually".
According to Westgarth, "only 215 solicitor-client bills were lodged with the Supreme Court for costs assessment in 2010. In earlier years the figures : 253 (2009), 169 (2008), 259 (2007) and 224 (2006). Similarly, the figures for written complaints for overcharging as reported to the Legal Services Commissioner are small. In the absence of compelling statistics to the contrary, the strident criticisms of time billing appear to be exaggerated", he said.
Despite his assertions, the Law Society has published a reminder to the profession about time billing practices.
It states that while disputes between solicitors ad clients are "relatively small", for the benefit of all practitioners it "may be timely to be reminded of some of the principles which guide prudent solicitors using time billing".
- It states that the distinction between time costing (a tool of law office management) and time billing should not be forgotten.
- Accurate and prompt recording of time, during or soon after attendance, will be vital at the time of bill preparation.
- The client’s needs and requirements, especially demands for excessive service, should be promptly recorded at the time of taking instructions and referred to at the time of billing.
- The client should be promptly informed of any additional work required and the need for it.
- The various administrative and incidental expenses (including travel and photocopying)should be carefully reviewed prior to billing.
- Sensible and realistic time billing, in accordance with the principle of fair and reasonable costs, will prevent many disputes arising.
- The bill of costs is one of the most important documents received by the client and requires careful preparation.
- There should be a careful balance between brevity and sufficient information in the bill of costs to enable the client to understand and appreciate the fees charged.
- Finally, apart from time billing, the availability of alternative fee charging methods should be discussed with responsive clients when appropriate.
The Law Society's recommendations come after the Opening of the Law Term Dinner in January in which former NSW Chief Justice James Spigelman said the Australian profession is "in danger of killing the goose".