Challenge Your Lawyer’s Legal Fees

This detailed explanation can be found under the section How to Complain about a Judge, Justice of the Peace, Lawyer or Paralegal. It involves having to go through a “Master” or an “Assessment Officer” found at a Superior Court.

In this same section, you will find an explanation of the Law Society of Ontario’s “Compensation Fund” (made up entirely by the monies that lawyers provide to it) which will compensate you, if it is found that your lawyer was dishonest with you in his/her dealings. The maximum payment to a client that has been cheated, is a hundred thousand dollars ($100,000.00).

In Ontario:  What if My Lawyer’s Bill is Too High?

I think this is a question asked in every City, County, Municipality, Province, State, Territory, Republic, Country in the world.  Unfortunately, this paragraph only applies to Lawyers working in the Province of Ontario.

It is most important, when hiring (or retaining) the services of a lawyer to understand the billing practice of that lawyer or law firm that the lawyer is employed by.  There are several ways that lawyers charge for their services:

Retainer Fee:
most lawyers require a “retainer” before he/she agrees to go on record as your counsel in the legal matter which you are faced with.  This normally means that the lawyer will assess your legal matter and will try to determine how much time will be involved, given his/her experience in similar matters and will base their charge of a retainer fee on this assessment.  Normally this means that you would have to pay him/her an amount equal to what the entire case may cost, up front.  This money is deposited into a client trust fund and is drawn upon, as the services are performed.  The lawyer should provide you with a receipt for the retainer and should send you notices every time this fund has monies drawn from it.  You must keep all of this paperwork.  It is not unusual, if the matter is continuing, for the lawyer to ask for additional funds or at the end of the case, to ask for additional funds, if the original retainer did not cover the total expenses.
Hourly Rate:
In addition to the retainer above, most lawyers, after receiving the retainer fee, will then charge an hourly rate for their services.  You should know what this rate is, as it will affect the bottom line.  Remember, the most experienced, more senior lawyers, of those with a “Q.C” after their name (Queen’s Counsel) will charge a lot more.  Sometimes, the firm has a more junior lawyer, who charges less per hour, who the more senior lawyer may agree to oversee, while the work is being performed on your file.
Flat Fee:
Some lawyers will charge a flat rate.  A flat fee or flat rate means that the lawyer will charge you a particular fee, for a particular service, irrespective of the amount of time that is required to perform that service.
Sliding Scale:
Some lawyers will bill you on a sliding scale.  This means that if you have a low income or are economically challenged, you will be charged less.
Pro Bono:
This is when a lawyer performs the work free of charge.

Contingency Fees:

For many, this arrangement is a practical way to hire a lawyer. Normally, those who cannot afford to retain a lawyer with a large retainer provided up front  and do not qualify for legal assistance, prefer to sign an agreement before the action commences, which guarantees the lawyer a percentage of the monies awarded to the client. Normally this agreement excludes disbursement fees and only applies if there is a positive outcome in the matter. This type of deal cannot cover criminal or family law matters.

It is important to know, before hiring a lawyer, what their billing practices are, how much they will charge you, if they are willing to be paid in “installments”.  It is important to know this in advance as it will lead to less problems at the conclusion of your relationship with that lawyer.  A lot of post-trial problems can be avoided if you are referred by someone you know and trust, who can explain to you, their particular experience with that particular lawyer. Lawyers are, by the nature of the profession, suppose to have integrity and are presumed to be of good character.  Unfortunately, some lawyers are ambitious and to fund that ambition, they will knowingly and without reservation, over-charge their clients.

You can have your lawyer’s bill lowered.  There is a process and procedure in place to do this through the Superior Court of Justice in your area of the Province, not through the Law Society of Upper Canada.  You would have to make an appointment with an Assessment Officer or Master and this would have to be done within thirty (30) days of having received your bill from your lawyer for services rendered.

Before you make the decision, to challenge your lawyer’s bill before an Assessment Officer or Master, you must ask that your lawyer provide you with an itemized bill, which includes all of the work that he/she performed on your behalf.  A lump sum bill is insufficient; it must break down the work (the dates, times, the hours, letters, appearances on your behalf, phone calls, photocopies, disbursements, etc.) and show the total owing.

The Law Society of Upper Canada does not have the authority to determine how much someone should be charged for legal services.  Your lawyer must provide you with an itemized bill which shows a lump sum for fees and a breakdown of individual disbursements.  Disbursements are monies that your lawyer has spent on your behalf to pay other parties who have provided services in support of your case (ie- specialists, etc.).

The Law Society of Upper Canada cannot reduce your lawyer’s bill.  They can assist you in your endeavor to actually receive the bill from your lawyer if you have requested it and your lawyer and/or his/her assistant refuses to provide you with your bill. You can telephone the Complaints Department at the Law Society of Upper Canada at:

Outside of Toronto – toll free 1-800-268-7568
Toronto/GTA (416) 947-3310

Or you can write to:

The Complaints Department
The Law Society of Upper Canada
Osgoode Hall, 130 Queen Street West
Toronto, ON
M5H 2N6

Advice given by the Law Society if you feel your Lawyer’s Bill is too high:

Your lawyer or someone in your lawyer’s office can tell you exactly what your lawyer did in your particular case and how long it took.  If you tell the lawyer why you feel the bill is too high, your lawyer may be willing to reduce the account.

What if I communicate with my lawyer, requesting that the bill be lowered and my lawyer declines my request?

You will have to contact the Assessment Office to make an appointment to have your bill reviewed.  The Assessment Officer or Master, who reviews the bill, is an official of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.  Here are some of the Superior Court of Justice addresses in Ontario:

Toronto Whitby
Superior Court of Justice Superior Court of Justice
10th Floor Whitby Courthouse
393 University Avenue 601 Rossland Road East
Toronto, ON Whitby, ON
M5G 1E6 L1N 9G7
(416) 327-5440 (905) 430-5800
Hamilton London
Superior Court of Justice The John Sopinka Court House
45 Main Street East, Suite 518B 150 Dufferin Ave, Suite 806
Hamilton, ON London, ON
L8N 2B7 N6A 5N6
(905) 645-5252 (519) 660-3090
North Bay Thunder Bay
Courthouse Courthouse
360 Plouffe Street 277 Camelot Street
North Bay, ON Thunder Bay, ON
P1B 9L5 P7A 4B3
(705) 495-8309 (807) 343-2700
St. Thomas Windsor
Justice Building Courthouse
145 Curtis Street 245 Windsor Avenue
P.O. Box 310 Station Main Windsor, ON
St. Thomas, ON N9A 1J2
N5P 3T9 (519) 973-6620
(519) 633-1720  
Brockville Kingston
Superior Court of Justice Frontenac County Courthouse
41 Court House Square 5 Court Street
Brockville, ON Kingston, ON
K6V 7N3 K7L 2N4
(613) 345-5895 (613) 548-6811

If you are not sure which Superior Court of Justice office serves your area, for the purpose of having an Assessment of your lawyer’s bill, you can contact the Law Society’s Complaint Department in Toronto (Outside of Toronto – Toll Free 1-800-268-7568 or in Toronto (416) 947-3310) and speak with one of the Customer Service Representatives for your local assessment office phone number.

You have one (1) month from the time your lawyer sent you the bill to go to the assessment office to start the assessment process.  If you delay and wait beyond a month to begin the process, you will be forced to seek permission from a judge to initiate the assessment process.  The judge will only provide you with permission if your reasons for filing late are sufficient.

Here are the three (3) steps in the assessment process:

  1. You must contact the Assessment Office and make an appointment to have your bill reviewed.
  2. You must serve the lawyer (from whom the complaint arises) with the notice of appointment (serve him/her by process server, hand deliver it yourself or send it to his/her office, by registered mail– through Canada Post Corporation).
  3. You must attend the hearing and can be accompanied by another lawyer.

What does each step involve?

  1. Notice of Appointment:  to receive a notice of appointment, go to the Assessment Office with the original along with two (2) copies of your lawyer’s bill.  You will have to pay the requisition to get the Notice of Appointment?
    Remember to do this within a month of receiving your lawyer’s bill. The clerk at the counter will give you an appointment for the hearing.  There is a fee, to assess a solicitor/client bill, which must be paid in cash, certified cheque or a money order.
  2. Serve the Papers on Your Lawyer:  You must make sure that your lawyer gets a copy of the assessment papers.  You can mail them to your lawyer by registered mail (cost of $8.44 (includes standard envelope not weighing more than 30 grams, domestic postage (.54c + registration fee of $ 7.50 plus 5% G.S.T) or you can deliver them in person. Canada Post offers tracking online or via telephone and quick, safe delivery.  If you deliver them, ask someone in the office to sign and date the documents, which you must keep to prove that you delivered the papers.  If no one will sign or refuses to sign for the documents you delivered, you will have to prepare what is known as an affidavit of service, stating with whom you left the copies, the place, date & time.  This document must be sworn by a Commissioner of Oaths.  Blank forms are included in the materials you receive from the Assessment Office when you get a Notice of Appointment.
  3. The Assessment Hearing:  You may want to ask a lawyer to represent you at the assessment hearing.  Or, you can represent yourself.

The hearing is informal.  The Assessment Officer or the Master will give your lawyer a chance to talk.  Remember to bring documents about your case with you.  You may also want to ask a person who was there when your lawyer about fees to come to the hearing to say what was said.

The Assessment Officer or the Master will consider many things when reviewing your lawyer’s bill, including any information about a fee arrangement you may have had with your lawyer, the amount of time your lawyer spent on your case, the level of expertise required for your case, the importance of the case to you, the amount of money involved, the success, or lack of success, the amount of money you have already paid your lawyer, and, in some cases, your financial resources.

The Assessment Officer or the Master can decide that your lawyer’s bill is fair or that it is too high.  If it is too high, the Assessment Officer or Master can reduce it. If you feel that the conduct of the Master is in question and you would like to complain about his/her conduct, you can do so.  Please go to the “How do I complain about a Provincially Appointed Judge” section of this site (you would complain about a Master, in exactly the same way that you would complain about a Judge through the Ontario Judicial Council under the Courts of Justice Act)

What do I do if I believe that my lawyer or paralegal has been dishonest and has ripped me off?

The Law Society of Upper Canada’s Compensation Fund:

The Compensation Fund helps clients who have lost money due to a lawyer’s or paralegal’s “dishonesty”.  It is paid for exclusively by the lawyers and paralegal’s of Ontario. Over the years, millions of dollars have been paid to clients as a result of dealing with a dishonest lawyer or paralegal.

If you have had the unfortunate experience of having dealt with a dishonest lawyer or paralegal, this fund can reimburse you for part of your loss.  Typically, this fund will pay for losses involving money from estates, trust funds held for real estate closings and from settlements in legal actions. The maximum payout to a client that has had dealings with a dishonest lawyer is $ 100,000.00.

If you want to access this fund, you have to contact the Law Society of Upper Canada, within six (6) months of becoming aware of the loss.  You should send a letter outlining the loss and explaining the circumstances leading up to it.  Once the Law Society receives your letter, a package will be sent to you with all of the relevant details.

A staff lawyer assigned to the case will make a recommendation to the Compensation Fund’s review committee, which is responsible for making the final decision.  In certain cases, a referee will hear your claim.  The referee in turn, will prepare a written report which is forwarded to the review committee.
In Ontario, the Law Society of Upper Canada regulates lawyers and paralegals.  There are Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers and now, there are Paralegal Rules of Conduct.  This code of conduct must be followed and it expects a high standard of behaviour from both lawyers and paralegal’s.  The actual codes of conduct can be accessed through the Law Society’s website.  If the lawyer or paralegal has breached the code or rules of conduct, then a complaint should be made through the Law Society of Upper Canada . The complaints can be about a lawyer’s behaviour (ie- they were unprofessional, they discriminated against you, they harassed you, etc.) or their quality of work (ie-they were unprofessional, they didn’t show up for the hearing/trial, they forget to perform work that needed to be performed or they were negligent in their duties). If the Law Society of Upper Canada’s disciplinary body finds a lawyer or paralegal guilty of professional misconduct, that lawyer or paralegal can be disbarred, which means that his/her licence to practise law is revoked; in addition to being disbarred, there can be other consequences for disreputable behaviour.

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