Law firm told to re-open books on client account

In a recent decision, the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld a client’s right to assess a lawyer’s account.

In McCarthy Tétrault LLP v. Guberman, McCarthys had represented immigration lawyer Joel Stephen Guberman in his divorce proceedings and later sued him for unpaid legal bills.

Guberman requested that the bills be assessed, claiming that his lawyer made several errors that caused him to suffer financially.

At issue was whether Guberman was entitled to have his lawyer’s accounts assessed. The Court of Appeal ruled in favour of Guberman.

“The right of a client to have a lawyer’s account assessed is an important one, not to be taken away except in compelling circumstances. As this court has stated, public confidence in the administration of justice requires the court to intervene where necessary to protect the client’s right to a fair procedure for the assessment of a solicitor’s bill,” the ruling stated.

James Morton, head of the litigation group at Steinberg Morton Hope & Israel LLP, says the key element in Guberman is that there is no time limit for assessment.

“The takeaway from this decision is that even after the one-month period when someone has a prima facie right to assess your account, the court will almost always permit the client to assess a lawyer’s account,” he says.

As a result, Morton advises lawyers to consent to clients’ requests for assessment of their accounts.

The decision delivers a bit of a blow to lawyers since clients can now assess accounts from years prior and then lawyers have to spend the time — unpaid — defending accounts that they may not have a strong recollection of, says Morton.

But the court seemed more concerned about the public’s confidence in the administration of justice than the hassle it may cause for lawyers.

“The courts have said here and in other cases . . . that the public needs to be confident that lawyers’ bills are fair and proper, and are subject to review by the courts,” says Morton.

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