Cost disputes: what cost to the solicitor's reputation?

Marlene Winfield says that solicitors must be more transparent about exactly how much their services are going to cost the consumer. Marlene Winfield is senior policy officer at the National Consumer Council.

Last year, I was having problems with a bowing wall in my Victorian semi. The surveyor thought it might be a drains problem. I called in a builder. “How much will it cost to put right?” I asked.

“Well,” the builder said, “that depends. First of all, that might not be the cause of the problem, or it may not be the only cause.”

“What if it is the only cause?”

“It will depend on what we find when we start digging around. You can never tell with these old drains.”

“What is the worst thing you can find and how much will it cost?”

“No matter what we find, it is hard to put a figure on it. What we'll have to do depends on the district surveyor. Some of them can be difficult, demand extras. So you see, it's impossible for me to put a figure on it.”

“What about a range then?”

“I suppose I could try, but there are so many factors – as well as the vagaries of human behaviour – to take into account. No matter what figures I give you, they're bound to be wrong.”

What could I do? I put myself in his hands and hoped for the best. The builders came. They dug. They shook their heads and dug some more. Council officials came and went.

Eventually, I was presented with a bill that was several thousand pounds more than my wildest imaginings. I called in the surveyor, who said I had been overcharged. I decided to consult a solicitor.

The solicitor sat across the desk from me and listened to my story. As I went on, I could see in her eyes the look of disbelief that I could have been so stupid. You, dear reader, would no doubt agree.

She thought the case would be difficult to mount because I had no contract or estimate. She would try to negotiate with the builder, but he may be intransigent. If the case went to trial, there would need to be experts on walls and drains and evidence of what would have been a reasonable charge. In the end, it might rest on how sympathetic the judge was.

Determined to learn from past mistakes, I asked, “And how much is this going to cost me?”

“Ah,” she replied, “that is hard to say.”

Fortunately, this is not an entirely true story. Disputes over costs are the most common source of complaints about solicitors. The builder's arguments are exactly those used by some solicitors to justify not giving their clients proper costs estimates. How convincing are they coming from someone else?