There are two basic ways that lawyers calculate their fees. They can charge a set hourly rate for the time they spend working on your file, or they can charge a flat fee for a specific service. Contingency fees, which are fees that are based on a percentage of the outcome of the case, are common in the United States but are generally not allowed in Ontario except in what are called class proceedings. Most lawyers will ask for some payment in advance called a retainer. They may require their clients to pay the cost of court fees and other disbursements as proceedings unfold. You should ask questions about legal costs and disbursements before your lawyer begins working on your case.
The most common way for a lawyer to calculate a fee is on an hourly rate. This method of billing is especially common when the lawyer cannot predict in advance exactly how much time your legal work will involve. This is particularly the case in the handling of lawsuits. The lawyer will keep track of all the time they spend working on your file, and will bill you accordingly. Different lawyers have different hourly rates and take different lengths of time to do things. It is often difficult for a lawyer to predict their fees because they cannot tell in advance exactly how much time it will take. However, your lawyer should be able to give you an estimate of what it will cost. You can ask your lawyer to contact you if something happens to change the estimate.
Some lawyers charge a fixed fee for a specific task, such as preparing a will. Generally, this method of billing is used when the lawyer has a good idea of how long it will take them to finish the task. Some lawyers also set their fees according to the amount of money or value of the property involved in the case. For example, a lawyer may charge you a percentage of the value of the house you buy or sell.
Personal injury and pro bono work
In Ontario, in some cases such as personal injury cases, a lawyer may agree to do the work and not bill the client until the case is over. Sometimes the lawyer will only expect to receive a fee if they are successful. Some lawyers will probably charge a fee even if their client's case is unsuccessful, but will not ask to be paid until the case has been completed.
Lawyers' fees can depend on a variety of other factors as well. Fees may depend on how complicated your case is and the difficulties the lawyer faced. The lawyer may also consider the final outcome of the case as a highly relevant factor.
Retainers and disbursements
In addition to your lawyer's fees there are some additional expenses that you will have to pay. A retainer is the money you pay to the lawyer at the beginning of the case to cover some of the work and some of the expenses related to your situation. Your lawyer will also charge you for disbursements, which are expenses such as photocopies, long distance charges, court filing fees, and the expense of hiring an expert witness.
You should discuss your bill with your lawyer if you do not understand parts of it, or if you want more information about how the fees were calculated.
If you have a problem with your Lawyer's bill
If you have a problem with your lawyer's bill, and you are unable to settle the problem with your lawyer, you can have the bill reviewed by the Assessment office of the Superior Court of Justice. You have one month from the day the bill was sent to you to apply to the Assessment Office to have it reviewed. The address of the Assessment office is in the Blue pages of your telephone book under 'courts'. It will cost $53 to apply to have your bill assessed. You must make sure that your lawyer receives a copy of the Appointment for Assessment either by registered mail or by personal service.
When the bill is assessed, an independent court officer will look at it to decide if it is reasonable or if it is excessive. The officer has the right to reduce the lawyer's bill. As well, the officer may decide that the lawyer's bill is in order and you will then be responsible for the full amount of the account.
The Law Society does not regulate the fees lawyers charge their clients. The market place largely determines what the fees will be, except in the case where a lawyer's bill is assessed and altered by the Assessment office.