Why lawyers might be forced to pay clients
DIVORCE lawyers charging hundreds of dollars an hour will be forced to refund clients' legal bills if they fight dirty to drag out disputes.
New powers for Family Court judges to "order a lawyer to bear costs personally" are spelt out in new Federal Government legislation to be debated in parliament this year.
Lawyers will be banned from advising clients to "burn off the opponent'' by using expensive delaying tactics designed to send the other side broke.
And family law solicitors must encourage clients to accept a "reasonable offer of settlement''.
Judges could also order lawyers to give warring spouses an estimate of the time and cost of a court battle, to encourage private settlements.
But the Queensland Law Society has blasted the "lawyer-bashing'' reforms, with outgoing president Bill Potts blaming vengeful couples for cost blowouts.
"Lawyers do what their clients instruct them to do,'' he told The Courier-Mail before stepping down as president yesterday.
"Clients are often fighting over money and children and hurt feelings. Quite often in such emotionally fraught cases, these kinds of delays are more often laid at the feet of difficult clients rather than the lawyers.''
Divorce lawyers charge between $200 and $700 an hour, and barristers up to $10,000 a day.
The Courier-Mail has revealed how a Queensland wife spent $2 million on legal fees in Australia's longest-running divorce battle, lasting 15 years, while a husband spent $800,000 on legal fees for a property settlement that dragged on for five years.
The cost-cutting changes are outlined in legislation to merge the Family Court with the Federal Circuit Court, to be debated once a Senate inquiry reports in November.
"A judge may order a party's lawyer to bear costs personally,'' the legislation states. The lawyer must not recover the costs from the lawyer's client. The intention … is to support a culture in the conduct of litigation where the court and the parties are focused on resolving disputes as quickly and cheaply as possible in accordance with the law.''
But Mr Potts said the legislation "is just a form of lawyer-bashing''.
"Lawyers don't make money from delays and stuffing around,'' he said.
"Cases where a lawyer has wasted the court's time are extraordinarily few and far between.''
Mr Potts called on the federal government to appoint more judges to hear divorce disputes, instead of simply merging the two courts.
"The courts are chronically underfunded, and need judicial bums placed on judicial seats,'' he said. "Delays of 21 months to go to trial, and 18 months for a decision, are a sign of a court that is overworked and under-resourced.''