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Using a legal adviser

If you have a legal problem, you may want to see a solicitor for advice and representation. Solicitors can instruct a barrister on your behalf for specialist advice and representation in court. It is also possible to use a barrister directly without going through a solicitor through the public access scheme. If you go to a law firm for advice, some or all of the work may also be carried by a legal executive. Their work is similar to a solicitor.

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You may want to talk to someone who can give you general advice about your options first. A local advice agency such as a law centre or Citizens Advice Bureau, should also be able to give you details of local legal advisers who are experienced in the appropriate area of law. They may also have details of local legal advisers who offer free initial interviews, sometimes at your bureau, or who offer fixed-fee interviews. This may help you decide whether it's worth taking your case further.

For more information about sources of legal advice, see Help with legal costs - free or affordable help

If you do need a legal adviser, you should choose one who has experience in the appropriate area of law. You can find details of legal advisers on the GOV.UK website at www.gov.uk.

Some legal advisers are also members of accreditation schemes. This means they have been assessed as having special competence in a particular area of law. You can find details of all the accreditation schemes and how to find an accreditation scheme member on the Law Society website at www.lawsociety.org.uk

If you are at a police station, or have been charged with an offence for which you can be sent to prison, you can obtain free legal advice under the duty solicitors’ scheme. This does not depend on your financial circumstances. Your request will be passed to the Defence Solicitor Call Centre. Alternatively, you can choose your own solicitor and won't have to pay for advice if they have a contract with the Criminal Defence Service (CDS). The Call Centre will contact your solicitor for you.

For more information about what happens if you need legal advice at a police station, see Police powers.

If you are at the magistrates' or youth court, the arrangements for providing the solicitor will vary.

For more information about legal aid in criminal cases, see Help with legal costs.

If you need more information about duty solicitors, you should contact a local advice agency, such as a law centre or an experienced adviser at a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.

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Using a solicitor

When you have chosen a solicitor, you will need to make an appointment.

You should take all relevant documents to the appointment and it may be helpful to prepare a list of questions for the solicitor in advance.

You should take a form of identification with you to the interview such as a current passport or driving licence. You should check with the solicitor beforehand exactly what documents you need to take to the interview.

What should you expect from your solicitor

Solicitors must follow professional standards. This means they must:

  • treat you fairly
  • give you all the information you need so you can decide about the services you need
  • tell you how your problem will be handled and the options available to you
  • tell you about your right to complain and how to make a complaint
  • give you information about costs.

The Law Society produces a useful guide to using a solicitor which you can see on their website at: www.lawsociety.org.uk. The guide is available in different formats and selected languages on request.

You should make sure you understand what your solicitor has told you and should not be afraid to ask questions.

During the case the solicitor should keep you regularly informed of progress.

If, at any stage, you are unhappy with your solicitor, you have the right to stop using them and find a new one. You will need to ask them for your paperwork and pay them for any work they have already done.

You can find more information about finding and using a solicitor on the Solicitors Regulation Authority website at www.sra.org.uk.

Bogus solicitors

Bogus solicitors are people who call themselves solicitors but are not genuine. Sometimes they may create a fake identity or impersonate a real solicitor to carry out scams. Some people also claim to be solicitors when they are not qualified to do so. You can check if a solicitor is genuine and on the roll of solicitors by using the Law Society website at www.lawsociety.org.uk.

If you still think your solicitor may be fake, you can find more help and information including the latest warnings and alerts about bogus solicitors on the Solicitors Regulation Authority's website at www.sra.org.uk. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) regulates solicitors in England and Wales and can prosecute bogus solicitors. You can contact the SRA's helpline on 0870 606 2555.

The SRA holds information about solicitors' records including restrictions in place on them, go the SRA's website at www.sra.org.uk.

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Using a barrister - the public access scheme

A barrister can advise you on your legal rights, draft and send documents for you and represent you in court, tribunals or mediations. A barrister can also negotiate on your behalf and can attend interviews and hearings where appropriate.

Usually your solicitor will instruct a barrister to give detailed legal advice on your case and represent you in court. But through the public access scheme, you can instruct a barrister directly without going through a solicitor. This could save you money as you would only be paying for a barrister instead of a barrister and a solicitor.

The barrister would be able to deal with many aspects of your case, but you may have to help in some areas including filing documents with the court.

The scheme is available for all types of work that barristers do except for work that is funded by legal aid. This means that if you are eligible for legal aid, a barrister should advise you to see a solicitor. If you are not sure whether you can get legal aid, you should contact a solicitor who does legal aid work. If you are not sure whether your case would be suitable for the public access scheme, you should contact a barrister to get an opinion.

You can find more information about instructing a barrister and the public access scheme on the Bar Council website at www.barcouncil.org.uk.

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At the beginning of the case, your legal adviser should give you information about the likely cost of the case and how the charge is calculated, for example, a fixed fee, an hourly rate or a percentage fee. Information about costs should be set out in your client care letter.

Your legal adviser should always talk to you about how the service will be paid for and discuss options such as insurance or membership of a union that might help cover the costs

For more information about paying for your legal costs, see Help with legal costs - free or affordable help

In all cases, the solicitor should discuss how the costs are to be met and whether you are eligible for legal aid. If the solicitor does not do legal aid work, they should still explain the advantages of legal aid services to you if you are eligible, and give you the opportunity of going to a solicitor who does legal aid work.

For information about legal aid, see Help with legal costs - legal aid

The legal adviser must keep you informed about the costs throughout the case.

If the legal adviser is holding your money, it must be kept in a separate client account. You should be paid a fair and reasonable amount of interest on it.

The Legal Ombudsman Service has produced a useful guide on questions to ask your legal adviser about costs. Go to their website at www.legalombudsman.org.uk.

Conditional and contingency fee agreements (no-win, no-fee)

In some cases, you may enter into a conditional or contingency fee agreement with the solicitor. These are known as no win, no fee agreements. The solicitor will take on your case on the understanding that if you lose, they will not get paid. However, if you lose the case, you may have to pay the costs of the other side and you will normally be asked to take out insurance to cover this situation. In a conditional fee agreement, if you win the case, you will have to pay your solicitor a success fee on top of their basic costs.

For more information about conditional fee agreements, see Claiming compensation for personal injury – no win, no fee agreements, in Legal factsheets.

If you are considering entering into a conditional fee agreement, you must be clear what the terms of the agreement will entail and you should consult an experienced adviser for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on the nearest CAB.

If you enter into a contingency fee agreement and win your case, you will have to pay your solicitor a percentage of the damages you recover.

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Complaining about your bill

You should get your bill within a reasonable time after your legal adviser has finished the work they have done for you. The bill is made up of three elements:-

  • disbursements - expenses your legal adviser has had to pay out on your behalf, for example, fees paid to court and barristers’ fees
  • fees - for services carried out by the legal adviser on your behalf. If the work was court work, the fees chargeable are subject to court rules. If the work was non-court work, the fees must be fair and reasonable
  • VAT - this is charged on the fees and some disbursements.

If you think the bill is too high, you can:

  • ask your legal adviser for a detailed bill
  • make a complaint to your legal adviser
  • make a complaint to the Legal Ombudsman
  • ask a court to look at the bill.

Getting a detailed bill from your legal adviser

You can write to the legal adviser asking for full details of how some or all of the charges on the bill were worked out. This letter should also include a request for a written reply.

Making a complaint to your legal adviser

You can complain to your legal adviser about your bill using the firm's written complaints procedure. If this does not resolve your problem, you can make a complaint to the Legal Ombudsman. You will not have to pay a fee to complain to the Legal Ombudsman.

For more information about making a complaint to the Legal Ombudsman, see Complaints about legal advisers.

Asking a court to examine the bill

You can apply to the court for it to assess the amount payable to your solicitor. This is known as applying for a detailed assessment. You can ask the court to examine the bill even if you have signed a conditional fee agreement.

You should get legal advice before you apply for a detailed assessment as you may have to pay the costs of the assessment. You can find a costs lawyer on the Association of Law Costs Draftsmen website at www.alcd.org.uk.

If you have applied to court for an assessment, the Legal Ombudsman may not consider your complaint about the bill unless the proceedings are put on hold by the parties agreeing or by court order. The Legal Ombudsman may also dismiss a complaint about a bill if it would be more suitable for the issue to be dealt with by a court.

The court can examine the whole bill, and can either approve it or reduce it. You will have to pay further costs to use this procedure, but if the court decides to reduce the bill by more than one-fifth, you will not pay the costs of assessment.

You should apply for an order for assessment within one calendar month from the date you receive the bill. If more than one month has passed, the court may order that the bill be assessed, but if more than twelve months have passed, the court will only make an order in exceptional circumstances. If you have paid the bill in full more than one year before the application, the court has no power to make an order, even if there are exceptional circumstances.

If you have problems paying a solicitor's bill, the solicitor might insist on immediate payment. They could also charge interest on bills for non-court work after a month. However, they may agree to let you pay your bill in instalments.

An experienced adviser's help will usually be needed to assess whether you should challenge a solicitor’s bill, for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.

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