Why is this important?
Using a solicitor
This information applies to England, Wales and Northern Ireland
- Is a solicitor needed
- Choosing a solicitor
- Consulting a solicitor
- Solicitors’ costs
- The solicitor’s bill
- Complaints about solicitors
- Further help
Solicitors are not the only people who can provide legal advice. Legal help may be available from:-
- other professionals, for example, an accountant who can give advice on tax and company law
- advice centres, such as the Citizens Advice Bureaux, housing advice centres, money advice centres, law centres
- other organisations, such as trade unions and motoring organisations.
If you're unable to find suitable legal advice, you could consider representing yourself in court. You may have a friend or lay representative who can help and support you in court.
You can find a useful guide to representing yourself in court on the Bar Council's website at www.barcouncil.org.uk.
If you need a solicitor, you should choose one who has experience in the appropriate area of law. You can find details of solicitors on the Law Society website at: www.lawsociety.org.uk, or go to the GOV.UK website at www.gov.uk.
In Northern Ireland, go to the Northern Ireland Legal Services website at: www.nilsc.org.uk.
A local advice agency such as a law centre or Citizens Advice Bureau, should also be able to recommend local solicitors who are experienced in the appropriate area of law.
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. In England and Wales, 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 in England and Wales, see Police powers.
If you are at the magistrates' or youth court, the arrangements for providing the solicitor will vary. In Northern Ireland, Belfast Magistrates' Court is the only magistrates’ court with a duty solicitor's scheme.
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.
When you have chosen your 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
A solicitor must follow a professional Code of Conduct. 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 Braille, on audio tape and on CD – phone the Law Society on 0870 606 2555.
You should make sure you understand what the solicitor has told you and should not be afraid to ask questions.
During the case the solicitor should keep you regularly informed of progress.
At the beginning of the case, the solicitor 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.
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.
The solicitor must keep you informed about the costs throughout the case.
If the solicitor 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 a useful guide on questions to ask your solicitor 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.
In England and Wales, 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.
It is against the law for your solicitor to discriminate against you because of your age, disability, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.
The solicitors' professional rules also say that your solicitor should not discriminate against you because of any of the above grounds.
You can make a complaint about your solicitor by using their internal complaints scheme.
For more information about how to make a complaint against a solicitor, see under heading Complaints about solicitors.
You should get your bill within a reasonable time after your solicitor has finished the work they have done for you, and it will be made up of three elements: disbursements, VAT and fees.
Disbursements are the expenses the solicitor has had to pay out on your behalf, for example, fees paid to court and barristers’ fees.
Fees cover the professional services carried out by the solicitor on your behalf. If the work was court work, the fees that the solicitor can charge are subject to court rules. There are no scales that regulate non-court work, but the charges must be fair and reasonable. VAT will be charged on the fees and some disbursements.
If you think the bill is too high, you can:
- ask the solicitor for a detailed account
- make a complaint to your solicitor (see under heading, Complaints against solicitors)
- ask a court to look at the bill.
Getting a detailed bill from the solicitor
You can write to the solicitor 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.
Remuneration Certificates (Northern Ireland)
The Law Society of Northern Ireland can advise you about disputing a solicitor’s bill. However, you should first request a meeting with the solicitor and if you are still not satisfied, you can contact the Remuneration Certificate Department of the Law Society of Northern Ireland at:-
The Remuneration Certificate Department
The Law Society of Northern Ireland
Law Society House
96 Victoria Street
Tel: 028 9023 1614
Fax: 028 9023 2606
Asking a court to examine the bill
This procedure can be used for any work done by a solicitor, including court work, and is known as applying for a detailed assessment.
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. It is a good idea to get legal advice before you apply for detailed assessment because of the risk of costs.
If you ask for a detailed assessment within one month of getting the bill, the court must assess it. Between one month and a year, the court decides whether to agree to assessment of the bill. After a year it is very unusual for the court to agree.
The court cannot assess the bill if it has been paid in full more than one year before you apply.
You can ask the court to examine the bill even if you have signed a conditional fee agreement.
You can get an information sheet about applying for detailed assessment of a solicitor's bill on HM Courts Service website at: www.hmcourts-service.gov.uk.
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.
In England and Wales, you can also find a costs lawyer on the Association of Law Costs Draftsmen website at www.alcd.org.uk.
You may be dissatisfied with your solicitor for a number of reasons, for example, you may have problems with legal aid and/or you may be dissatisfied with the outcome of the case. You cannot complain about these things to your solicitor. However, if you are dissatisfied with the way the case was handled by the solicitor, for example, delays, discrimination or your solicitor losing documents or money, you can complain.
You must first try to resolve the complaint by discussing it with your solicitor. All solicitors' firms must have a written complaints procedure and the firm will tell you who to contact if you have a problem with the solicitor handling the case. The solicitor must give you a copy of the complaints procedure if you ask for it.
If this does not resolve the matter, in England and Wales you should contact the Legal Ombudsman. In Northern Ireland, you should contact the Law Society of Northern Ireland.
Bogus solicitors are people who call themselves solicitors but are not genuine. 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. In Northern Ireland, go to the Law Society of Northern Ireland website at www.lawsoc-ni.org.
The Legal Ombudsman in England and Wales
The Legal Ombudsman has a telephone help-line which can advise you about whether they can deal with your complaint.
You must contact the Legal Ombudsman within six months of your last contact with your solicitor. You should give them:
- details of the name and address of your solicitor
- the date you told your solicitor about your complaint
- details of the response you received.
The Legal Ombudsman will first try to resolve your complaint informally. If this is not possible, they will investigate your complaint formally and you will have a chance to put your case in writing.
If you accept the Legal Ombudsman's decision, it will be final and binding on you.
If the Legal Ombudsman agrees that your solicitor's service has been unsatisfactory, they can ask your solicitor to do any of the following:-
- apologise to you
- give you back any documents you might need
- pay you compensation for loss, inconvenience or distress (up to £50,000)
- to put things right if more work can correct what went wrong
- refund or reduce legal fees.
If the solicitor has broken any rules of professional conduct, the Legal Ombudsman may refer your complaint to the Solicitors Regulation Authority. In extreme cases, the solicitor could be disciplined or struck off which would mean they could no longer work as a solicitor.
If your solicitor has been negligent or has discriminated against you, you may be able to take legal action against the solicitor as well as complaining to the Legal Ombudsman. You will need to get legal advice. You may be able to get legal aid for this.
You can contact the Legal Ombudsman at:
PO Box 15870
You can find more information about how to make a complaint on the Legal Ombudsman website at: www.legalombudsman.org.uk.
For more information about using an Ombudsman, see How to use an ombudsman.
The Law Society of Northern Ireland in Northern Ireland
In Northern Ireland, the Law Society of Northern Ireland investigates complaints against solicitors. You should give your solicitor the opportunity to deal with your complaint first. To contact the Law Society, write to the Chief Executive at:
Law Society House
96 Victoria Street
If the Law Society of Northern Ireland upholds your complaint, it may order the solicitor to:
- reduce the bill
- correct any mistakes at their own expense
- take any other necessary action, such as referring the matter to the Solicitor's Disciplinary Tribunal.
The Law Society cannot order the solicitor to pay you compensation. If you are not satisfied with the outcome of your complaint to the Law Society, you can write to the Lay Observer at:
The Lay Observer for Northern Ireland
21 Chichester Street
In England and Wales, for more information about choosing a solicitor and or other legal adviser, go to the GOV.UK website at www.gov.uk.
In Northern Ireland, go to the Northern Ireland Legal Services website at www.nilsc.org.uk.