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Using a legal adviser

If you have a legal problem, you may want to see a solicitor for advice and representation. Solicitors can instruct a barrister on your behalf for specialist advice and representation in court. In Northern Ireland, it is not possible for a member for the public to directly instruct a barrister.

If you go to a law firm for advice, some or all of the work may also be carried by a legal executive. Their work is similar to a solicitor.

You may want to talk to someone who can give you general advice about your options first. A local advice agency such as a law centre or Citizens Advice Bureau, should also be able to give you details of local legal advisers who are experienced in the appropriate area of law. They may also have details of local legal advisers who offer free initial interviews, or who offer fixed-fee interviews. This may help you decide whether it's worth taking your case further.

For more information about sources of legal advice, see Help with Legal Costs

If you do need a legal adviser, you should choose one who has experience in the appropriate area of law. Some legal advisers are also members of accreditation schemes. This means they have been assessed as having special competence in a particular area of law. You can find details of legal advisers and accreditation schemes on the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission website at www.nilsc.org.uk

If you are at a police station, or have been charged with an offence for which you can be sent to prison, you should contact a solicitor immediately. Most criminal law firms in Northern Ireland operate a 24 hour emergency call out service to police stations for people detained outside of normal working hours. You may be presented with a list of criminal solicitors operating such a service in the area surrounding that particular police station. You are free to choose whatever solicitor you would like to call. However, in the event that you have no particular preference of solicitor, the police may contact any on call solicitor in that area on your behalf.

For more information about legal aid in criminal cases, see Help with Legal Costs

Using a solicitor

When you have chosen a solicitor, you will need to make an appointment.

You should take all relevant documents to the appointment and it may be helpful to prepare a list of questions for the solicitor in advance.

You should take a form of identification with you to the interview such as a current passport or driving licence. You should check with the solicitor beforehand exactly what documents you need to take to the interview.

What should you expect from your solicitor

Solicitors must follow professional standards. This means they must:

  • treat you fairly
  • give you all the information you need so you can decide about the services you need
  • tell you how your problem will be handled and the options available to you
  • tell you about your right to complain and how to make a complaint
  • give you information about costs.

You should make sure you understand what your solicitor has told you and should not be afraid to ask questions.

During the case the solicitor should keep you regularly informed of progress.

If, at any stage, you are unhappy with your solicitor, you have the right to stop using them and find a new one. You will need to ask them for your paperwork and pay them for any work they have already done.

Bogus solicitors

Bogus solicitors are people who call themselves solicitors but are not genuine. Sometimes they may create a fake identity or impersonate a real solicitor to carry out scams. Some people also claim to be solicitors when they are not qualified to do so. You can check if a solicitor is genuine and on the roll of solicitors by using the Law Society website at www.lawsoc-ni.org.

Using a barrister

A barrister can advise you on your legal rights, draft and send documents for you and represent you in court, tribunals or mediations. A barrister can also negotiate on your behalf and can attend interviews and hearings where appropriate.

Your solicitor may instruct a barrister to give detailed legal advice on your case and represent you in court. Through the Direct Professional Access Scheme other professionals can also instruct a barrister on your behalf, without going through a solicitor.  If, however, the barrister decides that your interests will be better served by the involvement of a solicitor, they can insist that a solicitor is retained.

You can find more information about instructing a barrister on the Bar Library website at www.barlibrary.com

At the beginning of the case, your legal adviser should give you information about the likely cost of the case and how the charge is calculated, for example, a fixed fee, an hourly rate or a percentage fee. Information about costs should be set out in your client care letter.

Your legal adviser should always talk to you about how the service will be paid for and discuss options such as insurance or membership of a union that might help cover the costs

For more information about paying for your legal costs, see Help with Legal Costs

In all cases, the solicitor should discuss how the costs are to be met and whether you are eligible for legal aid. If the solicitor does not do legal aid work, they should still explain the advantages of legal aid services to you if you are eligible, and give you the opportunity of going to a solicitor who does legal aid work.

For information about legal aid, see Help with Legal Costs

The legal adviser must keep you informed about the costs throughout the case.

If the legal adviser is holding your money, it must be kept in a separate client account. You should be paid a fair and reasonable amount of interest on it.

Complaining about your bill

You should get your bill within a reasonable time after your legal adviser has finished the work they have done for you. The bill is made up of three elements:-

  • disbursements - expenses your legal adviser has had to pay out on your behalf, for example, fees paid to court and barristers’ fees
  • fees - for services carried out by the legal adviser on your behalf. If the work was court work, the fees chargeable are subject to court rules. If the work was non-court work, the fees must be fair and reasonable
  • VAT - this is charged on the fees and some disbursements.

If you think the bill is too high, you can:

  • ask your legal adviser for a detailed bill
  • make a complaint to your legal adviser, asking them to consider their bill
  • For a non-contentious matter, apply to the Law Society of Northern Ireland for a “remuneration certificate” / “certificate of reasonableness”
  • For a contentious matter, ask the Taxing Office of the High Court to look at the bill.

You can write to the legal adviser asking for full details of how some or all of the charges on the bill were worked out. This letter should also include a request for a written reply.

Making a complaint

You can complain to your legal adviser about your bill using the firm's written complaints procedure. If you are not satisfied with the response, you should;

  • If the legal matter was non-contentious (i.e. it did not involve the issue of court proceedings), ask your solicitor to apply to the Law Society of Northern Ireland for a remuneration certificate. You must ask within 1 month of the date on which you received the bill and before the bill is paid. There is no charge to you in obtaining the certificate.  If you are dissatisfied with the certificate once issued you may apply to the Taxing Office for an Order of Taxation, provided that the bill is still less than six months old.

or

  • If court proceedings were issued in the matter, apply to the High Court Taxing Master for an Order of Taxation. A fee must be paid to use the Taxing Office’s service and you will be responsible for a further fee to your solicitor if the Taxing Office decides their bill was justified.

Further information on making a complaint to the Law Society of Northern Ireland can be found on their website at www.lawsoc-ni.org.

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