Legal Fee Scandal – Estates & Beneficiaries

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“Estates are not there to be feasted upon by lawyers but to go to the beneficiaries”   said Justice Jeremy Curthoys.

A Supreme Court judge has launched a scathing attack on lawyers who ‘feasted’ on a small family estate with their ‘indefensible’  legal fees, describing it as a ‘scandal’ that brings the profession into ‘disrepute’.

Justice Jeremy Curthoys’ withering takedown was aimed at the lawyers involved in the case of Angela Miller, who was contesting the will of her late de facto partner, Andre Taylor, who left his entire estate – worth about $600,000 at the time of the three-day trial last October – to his two adult children, Elisabeth and Philippe.

In a recent judgment, it was revealed the combined legal costs were potentially more than $500,000 – in a case involving six lawyers, one from interstate, but which only should have had two, according to the judge.

The small estate had been ‘ravaged’ by legal fees, he said.

“The costs on this matter are not, as counsel for the executor described them, ‘unfortunate’.  They are a scandal to the administration of justice and bring the legal profession into disrepute in the eyes of the public’, Justice Curthoys said.

‘Estates are not there to be feasted upon by lawyers, but to go to the beneficiaries and those who might be entitled either under the Will, the Administration Act or the Family Provision Act.

‘No citizen of this community being informed of the costs incurred relevant to the amount of the estate could be (anything) other than horrified.  Family provision matters are generally not complex and costs of this magnitude relative to the value of the estate are inexcusable’.

Ms Miler had a win in her legal fight, with Justice Curthoys awarding her a $200,000 slice of her late partner’s estate after he found she was his partner at the time of his death.  But her legal team Culshaw Miller Laywers’ costs amount to more than $140,000.

Under the breakdown in the judgement, legal fees for the defendants’ lawyers, first CGL before changing to Eastwood Sweeney Law, totalled nearly $285,000, while costs for the Executor, Mr Taylor’s ex-wife Elizabeth Taylor, came to nearly $77,000.00

Cameron Eastwood, lawyer for Mr Taylor’s children, told The Sunday Times he ended up charging his clients $109,000 – less than half what he actually spent on the case, waiving fees worth nearly $160,000.

Ms Miller’s lawyers, Culshaw Miller, did not respond  to the Sunday Times query.  Final orders on costs have yet to be made.  A Law Society of WA spokesman did not want to comment on this particular case but said the society was otherwise not aware on any cases where exorbitant or unjustified fees were charged in the profession.

To the contrary, the legal profession is closely regulated, with lawyers require to uphold the highest standards of the professional and ethical conduct’, he said.

‘Specific provisions are in place to ensure the costs expended in legal proceedings are proportional to the value, importance and complexity of the matters in issue’.

The Legal Profession Complaints Committee’s 2017 annual report states it received 1421 inquiries in 2016-17, with the highest proportion of those (28.2 per cent) involving costs issues.

Article by Kate Campbell –