Who can make a complaint about a lawyer?
Anyone can make a complaint about a lawyer’s behaviour or conduct. However, only the person who is responsible for paying the lawyer’s costs (usually the client) can complain about the costs charged by a lawyer.
Who can you complain to?
A complaint about a lawyer can be made to the VLSB+C (see ‘Contacts’). You are encouraged to check if the VLSB+C is the right organisation to help you before making a formal complaint. To find out if the VLSB+C can look into your concerns, see https://lsbc.vic.gov.au/consumers/how-we-can-help. Or, you can complete VLSB+C’s online enquiry form (at https://lsbc.vic.gov.au/consumers/consumer-enquiry-form).
VLSB+C staff can provide information about how complaints are handled, and what type of outcomes you can expect in your circumstances. In some cases, the staff may be able to help you to resolve your concerns without you making a formal complaint.
What can you complain about?
The VLSB+C helps people to resolve issues with lawyers registered to practice in Victoria.
Common complaints include allegations of:
- excessive delay;
- poor communication;
- poor advice;
- inadequate service; and
- unethical conduct.
What complaints can’t the VLSB+C handle?
The VLSB+C cannot deal with complaints where:
- the matter is before the courts, including where a lawyer has sued you;
- you are disputing legal costs of more than $128 760 (see ‘Complaining about your lawyer’s bill’, below);
- you are complaining about a legal bill more than four months after the time limits noted below (see ‘Time limits’, below);
- you are complaining about something that took place more than three years ago (unless there are special circumstances);
- your complaint is about a licensed conveyancer (these complaints should be made to Consumer Affairs Victoria – see ‘Contacts’); or
- your complaint is about a judge or magistrate (these complaints should be made to the Judicial Commission of Victoria (www.judicialcommission.vic.gov.au), which receives complaints about judicial officers and VCAT members).
For more detailed information about what the VLSB+C can and cannot do, see https://lsbc.vic.gov.au. This will help you to decide if the VLSB+C is the best place to seek help.
Complaining about your lawyer’s bill
If you make a complaint about your lawyer’s bill, the VLSB+C will try to resolve the dispute between you and your lawyer.
The VLSB+C’s staff are impartial – they will not take your side or the lawyer’s side. They will attempt to resolve your dispute by considering the particular facts of your matter, including:
- whether the lawyer has appropriately disclosed their costs to you;
- whether the services provided by the lawyer were of an appropriate standard;
- whether the costs charged were fair and reasonable; and
- whether you and the lawyer have behaved reasonably throughout the course of your matter.
You and the lawyer will be expected to participate in the complaint-handling process in good faith – understanding each other’s views and compromising on certain issues where appropriate.
In certain limited circumstances, the VLSB+C can determine that a bill should be reduced or that other remedial action should be taken by the lawyer. Where a resolution is not possible, the VLSB+C may give you the right to take the matter to VCAT for determination (where the amount in dispute is no more than $32 190 – for applications made in the year ending 30 June 2022) or to the Costs Court of the Supreme Court of Victoria for assessment (there is no monetary limit on the Costs Court’s jurisdiction).
The VLSB+C may close a complaint investigation without making a determination if, for example, the bill is fair in all the circumstances or the VLSB+C decides that the facts in the matter should be determined by a court or tribunal. The VLSB+C can also close the complaint if you fail to participate in good faith in the dispute resolution process.
Time and cost limits
There are limits for disputing your legal bill: time limits within which you can dispute costs and cost limits that restrict the role of the VLSB+C in becoming involved in a dispute (see below). If you wish to dispute a bill outside of the time and cost limits, the VLSB+C may still be able to informally assist you to resolve the dispute, but only if the lawyer agrees to participate in the process.
Alternatively, you may make a claim under the Australian Consumer Law and Fair Trading Act 2012 (Vic) to VCAT, or you can apply to the Costs Court. Taking a costs dispute to the Costs Court is the most expensive option. This expense would normally only be justified for disputes over large legal bills.
In most cases, you have 60 days from the date the legal costs are payable to dispute those costs. However, your lawyer can sue you for payment of the costs 30 days after the bill was received. If your lawyer does sue you, even within the 60-day period, the VLSB+C cannot deal with the dispute. If you have requested an itemised bill, then you have 30 days after the itemised bill was given to you to dispute those costs.
The VLSB+C can accept a costs dispute up to four months outside of these time limits if:
- you can demonstrate that there was a good reason for the delay; and
- the lawyer has not sued you for the costs.
As at 1 July 2021, the VLSB+C can deal with complaints about legal bills where the total costs you have incurred are $128 760 or less. If your costs are higher than this amount, you cannot make a complaint about all the costs you have incurred. Instead, you can only complain about a portion of those costs, up to a total value of $12 880.
In any complaint brought to the VLSB+C, if you are complaining about an amount that is greater than $12 880, the VLSB+C can assist you negotiate with your lawyer. However, if an agreement can’t be reached, you can take the matter to the Costs Court or to VCAT.
Disputes about legal services (not legal costs)
The VLSB+C can also consider disputes about the quality of legal services provided by a lawyer. For example:
- where work has not been done properly or at all;
- where there have been lengthy delays;
- where there has been a lack of communication;
- where necessary steps have not been taken; or
- where the lawyer has been rude or abusive.
The VLSB+C will assess your concerns (and act on them) based on the risk of harm to you and others based on the information supplied by you and your lawyer. In some cases (e.g. where a lawyer was rude), the VLSB+C may not act after a single complaint, but will instead monitor for patterns of behaviour that may require a closer look at a lawyer’s professional behaviour or conduct in the future.
The VLSB+C’s primary focus is on seeking negotiated outcomes to complaints. For example, the lawyer may agree to apologise, to re-do work, to take necessary steps at a reduced or at no cost; or the lawyer’s explanation may clear up any miscommunication.
If your complaint cannot be resolved by negotiation, and it is appropriate in the circumstances, the VLSB+C can investigate your complaint and make a determination.
Such determinations may include:
- that the legal costs be reduced or refunded (up to $12 880);
- that the lawyer re-do the work;
- that the lawyer undertake training, education, counselling or be supervised;
- that the lawyer apologise to you;
- cautioning the lawyer; and
- in circumstances where you can demonstrate a direct connection between the lawyer’s conduct and your loss of a specific sum of money – a compensation order of up to $25 000.
Compensation orders (financial loss)
The VLSB+C can only order a lawyer to pay you compensation if you have lost money as a direct result of your lawyer’s action, and it is in the interests of justice to do so.
Compensation is payable only where it is fair and reasonable. The compensation may not be as much as you requested. The maximum amount of compensation that the VLSB+C can award is $25 000. If your financial loss is more than $25 000, you should seek independent legal advice about other options that may be available to you.
Compensation for loss of trust money or property (from the Fidelity Fund)
Law practices often hold money or property on trust for client (or other people). The money or property does not belong to the law practice. The law practice must only use the money or property according to the instructions of the client for whom the practice is holding the money or property. Trust money is usually deposited into a special bank account called a ‘trust account’. However, money may still be ‘trust money’ even if it is not banked into a trust account if it is given to a law practice while the practice is representing a person in a legal matter.
The Fidelity Fund is managed by the VLSB+C. The fund was established to compensate clients for the loss of money or property that was held in trust by a lawyer, if the dishonest or fraudulent behaviour of a lawyer, an employee, or an associate of a law practice, or a barrister’s clerk caused the loss. The VLSB+C investigates and determines claims made against the Fidelity Fund.
For more information about the Fidelity Fund, contact the VLSB+C (on 1300 796 344) and ask to speak to a Fidelity Fund Officer.