Attorneys defend legal fees

Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi believes that the remuneration of attorneys who deal with non-contentious court matters is ridiculousy low and must be put into context.

His comments came one day after Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of the West Indies Rose-Marie Belle Antoine at the opening of the 2019/2020 Law Term gave her opinion that lawyers' fees in T&T are too high which has been denying some citizens justice.

Weighing in on the issue yesterday, Al-Rawi said there are two aspects to attorneys' remuneration-contentious and non-contentious.

Contentious legal work relates to legal  matters that takes place between two or more parties such as a court hearing or tribunal hearing.

Non-contentious legal work relates to transactions occuring between one or more parties such as the sale or purchase of a house. 

"Contentious is everything that is in court. There are rules and standards and brackets for fees which have been revised by the rules that come out of court."

What has not been revised, Al-Rawi said was the non-contentious remuneration "which is in fact ridiculously low" stating this fee was introduced in 1998 and had not been changed.

"So there is one end of the profession that is extremely low and when you look at that from a Anti-Money Laundering, Countering of Finance Terrorism and FIU perspective one can argue they are at a loss. It is the contentious fee aspect that is perhaps higher that can be dealt with by the introduction of a number of measures."

As AG, Al-Rawi said he negotiated "fees down" for the Government.

"The other aspects of  the introduction of contingency fees and other arrangements those are potential solutions. But when you look at it factually non-contentious work is beyond 20 years in terms of the last revision of fees. Contentious work is about current. But that in practice has been negotiated downward."

Speaking on the Morning Brew programme yesterday, Avory Sinanan, SC, said if legal fees are astronomical, then it was all part of the high cost of living.

"I think Trinidad has been the anvil as it were for a number of  complex legal matters that have carried the Caribbean jurisprudence forward and that has taken time and absorbed resources."

In the field of public and administrate laws, Sinanan said T&T has been at the cutting edge.

He said in 2015, a guideline for fees was put in place.

The practice guide was issued in keeping with the recommendations made by the Costs Committee on the grades/bands and guidelines figures for hourly rates for attorneys.

Sinanan said the provision of legal services is subject to market forces.

"It is open to a litigant to choose a high price lawyer if he wants. Or if he prefers to usher himself in something less than a Rolls Royce lawyer to the High Court, then he goes elsewhere."

To level the playing field, Sinanan said the Chief Justice in consultation with the Law Association of T&T instituted a certain practice direction which linked the standing of attorneys to the number of hours they may spend on a matter and demarcated what should be charged as a guideline.

This is what attorneys follow, he said, but it has not been cast in concrete.

Sinanan said if one attorney is tasked with doing all the work in a matter, deadlines are missed.

"Therefore, it promotes a speedy and a more efficient resolution and a better representation to the client if there is a division of labour...where you have someone  preparing the brief and another person presenting it in court."

Asked if he was fearful that people would believe that lawyers are trying to be smart men with their fees and have been out of alignment with market forces, Sinanan said this has been so from day one.

"It is part of our culture to engage in lawyer bashing. You know, when a client gets a good service and he pays even a high price for it he forgets the price that he pays. Long after he remembers the good service that he gets."

He said a lot of lawyers do pro bono work.

Sinanan said if Antoine was so concerned, the Law Faculty could open a legal aid clinic to accommodate poor people.

He even suggested that staff at the Law Faculty could make arrangements with UWI to attend court to represent impoverished individuals "rather than stay in an ivory tower and from a secure and cushy position and lambast lawyers who have to go out there and face the music every day."

Former attorney general and attorney Garvin Nicholas said if attorneys operate strictly within the guideline fees clients would be best served.

" I am not certain that everybody operates within the guidelines. What I am saying that some attorneys fees that I have seen I find incredible. But most people operate within the guidelines."

Nicholas said he would notify clients about their fees upfront.

"So that they would know without question what it is."

He said the fees prescribed by the legal profession act are reasonable.

One attorney who requested anonymity said a few considerations should be taken into account.

"Most attorneys operate on their own or in the form of chambers arrangements and have considerable overheads like rent, staff salaries, electricity bill, stationery and maintenance of office equipment."

Another lawyer pointed out that a senior UWI law lecturer minimum and maximum annual compensation package was $340,000 and $421,000 respectively, while a law lecturer minimum and maximum yearly salary was $239,000 and $333,000 respectively.

 - by Shaliza Hassanali