The cost of hiring a lawyer in Australia will depend on a range of factors, including the level of experience and expertise of the particular lawyer and law firm, including whether the firm is long-established and has lawyers who are certified as Accredited Specialists, the nature and complexity of the case, your instructions regarding the case – for example, whether you wish to plead guilty or not guilty in a criminal case, or seek consent orders or proceed to a hearing in a family law case – and whether the work is to be undertaken on an hourly or fixed fee basis.
For cases charged on hourly rate, also known as time-costed matter, – that rate can range anywhere from $250 + GST for a junior lawyer in a general legal practice all the way up to $600 + GST or more for an Accredited Specialist, which is a lawyer with at least 5 years of experience in a particular field of law who undertakes a rigorous additional training and examination process before they can be certified by the legal regulator. While many lawyers undertake that process – some several times over many years – only a very small percentage are successful.
The costs of legal representation will be significantly higher if the law firm lacks the experience required to undertake the work independently and therefore needs to engage specialist barrister – who is a lawyer that wears a ‘wig and gown’ in the higher courts. Barristers can charge anywhere from $2000 + GST all the way up to $15000 + GST per day. It is therefore wise and cost effective idea to engage lawyers with the experience and expertise to undertake cases themselves, rather than have to brief a barrister.
Fixed fee legal work in the context of criminal law may cost anywhere from $1000 – $3000 + GST for a Local Court guilty plea and sentencing all the way up to the hundreds of thousands of dollars for a lengthy and complex District or Supreme Court jury trial.
As the question of how much it costs to hire a lawyer is not always straightforward, it is often a good idea to take advantage of the free first conferences that are offered by many law firms across Australia, both to determine which lawyer is right for you and how much they will charge you.
A cost agreement will be prepared during or immediately after the conference, which you should read very carefully so there are no nasty surprises down the track.
And while a good lawyer will always take the time to carefully explain cost, and there will be no such surprises as the case proceeds, there are also some exceptions.
Man challenges legal fees
One Queensland man has taken his legal representatives to court, challenging a bill of more than half a million dollars for the firm’s work on an unlawful termination matter on his behalf.
Nicholas Smith has taken Brisbane-based law firm FCB Workplace Lawyers to the District Court after being charged $549,923.65 for the unfair dismissal case, claiming the sum amounted to “excessive fees” and involved “duplicated work” by a number of lawyers at the firm.
According to court documents, Mr Smith felt ‘trapped’ into the firm’s cost agreement and would have walked away after engaging the firm to prepare and send a “letter of demand” if he had known the fees were going to be so high.
He further asserted he was “already ill” when he retained the firm, something he says the firm knew about and took advantage of when the legal team pursued his case in the Federal Circuit Court and Federal Court, rather than pushing for an earlier settlement.
However, Queensland District Court Judge Suzanne Sheridan determined there was insufficient evidence to suggest the firm had over-charged him and that it was not unusual for more than one lawyer to undertake substantially similar work on a case, in order for each of the lawyers to be abreast of the issues and evidence.
In dismissing Mr Smith’s claim, her Honour remarked that the eye-watering sum was the “hallmark of being the product of proceedings which simply became expensive” rather than anything unethical or unlawful done by his legal team.
The law is complicated, and legal advice is not a cheap commodity.
And, there have long been debates about how the cost of legal advice can be a significant hurdle for many people needing it.
Certainly cost has been a significant contributor to both the increasing number of people relying on the legal aid system and also the growing number of people choosing to represent themselves in court.
Representing yourself in court is not always the best idea, however a lot of people do it out of necessity. If you do choose to represent yourself, then it is advisable to get some legal advice prior to going to court, and a number of firms do offer a ‘free initial consultation’ which can be greatly beneficial.
It is extremely important to choose your lawyer carefully – find a firm you’re comfortable with. Being able to have frank conversations will be important right from start to finish when dealing with your legal matter, so find people you can talk to and who will take the time to explain important legal concepts to you in a way you can understand.
Talk to your lawyers about fees upfront. If it is not possible to give you an accurate estimate of costs – you should at least be able to obtain a schedule outlining the hourly rate for those people who will be working on your case. Lawyers are obliged to inform clients in writing how much they intend to charge.
How can I keep my legal costs down?
There will also be charges called ‘disbursements’ which lawyers incur on your behalf. These are related to the administration of the case and will include court costs. All charges incur GST.
The best way to keep an eye on costs is to keep an open dialogue with your legal team, so there’s transparency and no surprises. Ask how the billing process works, and the most likely disbursements you’ll incur. The firm should be able to advise of “running costs” at any stage of the legal process and provide you with an itemised invoice detailing all the specific charges.
In 2004, Sydney Criminal Lawyers became the first law firm in Australia to publish fixed-fees for criminal law and traffic law matters. Now there are many more firms doing this for less complex cases and minor offences.
Fixed fees apply to all of SCL’s lawyers including Accredited Criminal Law Specialists and Senior Associate Lawyers, some of whom have decades of experience in criminal law and a few who are highly sought-after defence lawyers.
All fees are published on the firm’s website which gives potential clients clarity and certainty up front. More importantly, fees are intended to be affordable, making legal advice much more accessible for everyone.
While most cases can be completed on the first court date, if the matter does go beyond the initial court date, then additional fees can apply.
For more serious criminal matters, Sydney Criminal Lawyers will offer a competitive and realistic cost estimate – so that you can prepare and budget for your legal costs.
‘No win, No fee’ arrangements
While this kind of payment arrangement can sound very tempting, it does have some pitfalls, and it is an arrangement you should enter carefully, being wary of the fine print in the contract you sign. Potential clients need to make themselves aware of the costs involved that they will have to pay if they don’t win their case in court. And, also be aware of the costs the law firm will claim from any settlement if the case does win.
What if I want to dispute the legal fees?
If you are unhappy with what a lawyer charges you, and you have received an itemised bill and discussed it, then the first step is usually mediation of some kind where you can negotiate with an independent arbitrator. If this fails, then you can make a complaint to the Legal Services Commissioner.
Another option is to have an independent assessment of costs done. Application for Assessment must be made within 12 months of the bill being given or request for payment being made.
It’s important that if you are disputing a bill that you act swiftly. Your lawyer may take court action against you if you fail to pay your bill.
However, this action cannot be initiated until 30 days after giving you an invoice or while the dispute process is officially underway.