[Note: This post was prepared by HALT, the country's preeminent law reform organization. Fee-gouging by lawyers is systemic in the legal system. These best practices will give legal consumers an affordable and fair remedy to fight back. -Steve Elias]
HALT's recent Report Card has produced a set of best practices that should be used in every state's fee arbitration system. "Designed to help clients resolve fee disputes with lawyers out of court, fee dispute resolution programs should use fair procedures, maintain clear rules and be visible to consumers," stated HALT Senior Counsel Suzanne M. Blonder. "We have identified a dozen best practices from around the country that should be implemented nationwide so that fee arbitration systems can fulfill their promise to consumers."
- Require lawyers to participate in fee arbitration at a client's request, so consumers do not have to submit to expensive court proceedings.
- Make arbitration decisions binding on lawyers to ensure that the process does not drag on indefinitely.
- Create a statewide system with unified rules so that consumers in neighboring counties are not subjected to different sets of procedures.
- Maintain a Web site with plain language resources about the state's fee arbitration system, including a downloadable claim form.
- Provide guidance over the telephone to individuals with questions about the fee arbitration process.
- Publicize the state's fee arbitration system in local venues, including courthouses and libraries.
- Allow non-lawyers fair representation on arbitration panels that decide lawyer-client fee disputes.
- Resolve fee disputes promptly--from start to finish in no more than three months.
- Provide free legal assistance to clients to enforce and collect an arbitration award that a lawyer refuses to pay.
- Offer mediation--a process in which a trained mediator does not issue a ruling but helps guide participants toward a resolution--but do not require it before parties may engage in arbitration.
- Supply a form to apply for participation in the fee arbitration program, that includes plain language instructions.
- Abolish all gag rules in fee arbitration and allow individuals to speak freely about the nature of the fee dispute, the arbitration process and the result.
For a more detailed explanation of these best practices and why state bars and courts should implement them, go to www.halt.org.