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As a general rule, an attorney is entitled to charge his client a fair and reasonable fee for the work that he does. What is fair and reasonable can be influenced by a number of factors such as the difficulty of the work, the urgency, the importance and the amount of money involved. As an example, a person might be arrested and put in jail. He would expect his attorney to stop everything and apply for bail. The attorney would then be able to charge a little bit more than usual because the matter is urgent and he had to put off other work that he had planned to attend immediately to the particular matter. An attorney might also be able to charge more if it is a complicated matter involving millions of rands or if he has to do the work after normal office hours.

Sometimes an attorney is limited to charge a specific tariff and generally he may not charge anything more or less than the laid down tariff. Examples of tariff charges are:-

In litigation matters where there are two parties involved, the one person might end up having to pay the other person's costs. Here we have a distinction between party and party costs and attorney and client costs. When a Court case is finished, the successful party draws up a Bill of Costs according to a tariff and sends it to the unsuccessful party and to the Taxing Master of the particular Court where the case was heard. Both attorneys are entitled to attend the taxation of the bill and argue each and every item on the Bill. It is up to the Taxing Master to decide whether or not to allow an item. If it is not allowed it is taxed off. The amount so assessed is the party and party bill and that is the amount that the unsuccessful party must pay. However, you as the successful party, might have to pay your own attorney more than the amount that you recover from the other side. There are a number of reasons for this. It might be that you telephoned your attorney every day and chatted to him about the matter for half an hour. He is entitled to charge you for each and every telephone call. However, you can be sure that the Taxing Master will not expect your opponent to pay for a daily telephone call to chat about the matter as it is not a necessary expense. The difference can be regarded as attorney and client costs which you must pay to your attorney but can't recover from your opponent. It is similar to a doctor who might be contracted out of medical aid. He might charge you R100,00 for an appointment but you are only entitled to recover R80,00 from a medical aid. You have to pay the balance of R20,00 out of your own pocket.

Most firms of attorneys have their own office tariff for general work where there is no prescribed tariff that they can apply. Generally such a tariff would work on an hourly rate for consultations, a rate for telephone calls, a rate for drafting and drawing documents per page and a rate for perusing and considering documents. Within an office, you might find that there are different rates for different attorneys and their assistants. If you consult with the most junior candidate attorney in the office he might charge you R200,00 per hour whereas if you were to consult with the most senior partner it might be R750,00 per hour or even more.

When you visit a doctor or a dentist, he normally treats you for your problem and that is the end of the matter. Most often it is completely different with an attorney. You consult with your attorney, explain your problem to him and then you leave. The attorney then starts to work on the problem. This is sometimes why you might consult with your attorney for five minutes but receive an account for R1 000,00 - He will have been busy with your problem after you have left.

Because of their qualifications and experience, attorneys are generally expected to know certain things. You will not be charged for research unless the matter is out of the ordinary.

Attorneys also account to you in different ways. Sometimes an attorney might account to you every single month for work that he has done during that month even though he has not finished the job. Sometimes he might account to you from time to time only or when he reaches a particular milestone or he might wait until he as completed the job before sending you one final account. If you expect your matter to last for some time, it might be an idea to ask your attorney to account to you on a monthly or at least on a regular basis. In this way, you will be able to keep a careful track on expenditure without being presented with one huge account when the matter is finalised. You will also be able to pay over a period of time without feeling uncomfortable about asking for terms when the whole account becomes due. Another advantage is that you can make sure that your attorney is dealing with the matter because he will have to tell you what he is doing on a monthly basis to justify his charges.

You will appreciate that there are so many variables to an attorney's charges that it is virtually impossible for you to get an accurate "quote" before an attorney starts his work. You might approach your attorney for what you think is a simple matter that your neighbour owes you R1 000,00. The most that the attorney can tell you is that if the neighbour accepts liability then it might cost you R300,00 or R400,00 to collect the debt. The attorney cannot at that stage predict whether your neighbour might leave and move to another town and then might keep moving and you have to chase him all over the country. He might even defend the action and you now have to go to Court. The party that loses in the Magistrate's Court might appeal to the High Court in Pietermaritzburg and from there it could even go to the Appellate Division in Bloemfontein. The total cost could be as much as R100 000,00. In much the same way, generally you cannot just take your car to a mechanic and ask him how much it will cost to fix it. First he has to find out what is wrong and then while he is fixing it he might come across other problems.

You might get an account from your attorney which is very detailed and which specifies each and every consultation, telephone call, letter written or received and copy made. There might be a charge against each and every item. Sometimes attorneys don't want to go to the time and expense of drafting a very detailed Bill and you might get an account that simply says "inclusive fees for taking instructions, consultations, correspondence and attendances" with a global amount that the attorney feels is fair. You are entitled to ask him for a detailed account. You might find that he stipulates a condition that if you ask for a detailed account then he will draw you a detailed account but if the detailed account is higher than the amount that he has already given you, he will ask you to pay the higher amount. You will find that in most instances the attorney will make sure that he would be able to justify his account if he was to be asked to draw a detailed Bill because he will want to avoid the embarrassment of being "caught out" and so it might be costly to ask for a detailed account without careful thought.

Any person that feels unhappy about an amount that he is being charged by his attorney can ask the local Law Society to assess the charges. This they will do free of charge and the attorney will be bound to reduce his charge if the Law Society feels that he has been unreasonable.

If you have any questions or you need any clarification on the above please contact us and we will happily respond to any queries.

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