The role of fixed legal fees in family law cases

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A recent consumer panel has suggested that family lawyers should be forced, by regulation, to offer all their services for a fixed fee. The argument runs that if dentists have to display a price list showing what their treatment costs are, then why shouldn’t family solicitors do the very same thing?

But of course that argument misses the point. If you go to your dentist for a filling or a crown you can look at a price list and see what a filling or a crown costs. But if, having looked at your tooth, it’s clear that a great deal more dental work is needed, the dentist isn’t going to do the extra work and stick to the price of the filling or the crown.

Similarly, if you call your plumber out to service your boiler that will probably incur a fixed fee. But if the service reveals a lot of work needed, the plumber will assess the work required and then calculate a price for you. And family law really isn’t any different. There are elements of it that can be done for a fixed fee: The process of a divorce for example. But there are elements of family law work that simply can’t be done that way.

The cost of legal work largely depends on what steps are involved and how long it will take to complete them. Legal cases are by definition open ended. The steps that have to be taken are often dictated by what the opponent says or does. The client and their legal team are not therefore entirely in control. Some family law disputes appear to be highly contentious and intractable at the outset, but turn out to be relatively easily resolved. By contrast, other family disputes start out looking like they can be settled early on when in reality they become protracted and very litigious.

It is also dangerous to encourage people to focus solely on how cheaply they can get a particular legal service carried out. Its all too likely that they will be wasting money at a time when what they really need is cost effective, proactive and realistic legal advice and support. Family lawyers know all too well that the instructions they get are understandably and inevitably bound up with the distress of a relationship breakdown. People are trying to sort out things that they need to think about with their head, at a time when they’re pretty much focussed on their heart. The picture you start with may well be very different from the final picture that emerges at the end. And sometimes, people going through divorce or separation behave very, very badly.

By all means ask your family lawyer about fixed fees. But if they can’t give you a fixed fee for sorting out finances or issues relating to your children don’t hold that against them. Talk to them about what they truly can and can’t achieve for you. Don’t be embarrassed to insist on being given best and worst case scenarios for the costs of resolving particular issues. If they’re coy about their costs, they’re not the lawyer for you. But bear in mind that the old adage about paying peanuts is true in pretty much every area of life!

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