Costs expert says solicitor engaged in ‘worst case of overcharging’

High Court hears of ‘Halloween’ scenario of Joseph Buckley’s ‘ghost files and ghost boxes’

Solicitor Joseph Buckley is objecting to decisions of the taxing master on some of his bills.  Photograph: iStock

Solicitor Joseph Buckley is objecting to decisions of the taxing master on some of his bills. Photograph: iStock

 

The case of a solicitor who disputes he overcharged a former client by more than €650,000 was described by an experienced legal costs accountant as the “worst case of overcharging” he had ever encountered, the High Court has heard.

Decisions of a High Court taxing master showed Wicklow-based solicitor Joseph Buckley was involved in “serious overcharging”, involving sums up to €700,000, of Denis Doyle, Paul Anthony McDermott SC, for Mr Doyle, said.

Mr Buckley had double-charged, charged for work he did not do and charged excessive fees, he said.

There was an element of “Halloween” here because Mr Buckley’s objections to taxing master Declan O’Neill’s findings in relation to various bills of costs of the solicitor raised issues of “ghost files and ghost boxes”, he said.

The taxing master had said Mr Doyle, a client of Mr Buckley’s for more than 10 years from 1998 was at best presented with bills of “almost impenetrable opaqueness”. While Mr Buckley argued Mr Doyle consented to the fees and signed bills, there was an issue whether that was informed consent.

The taxing master had also expressed “huge concerns” about Mr Buckley’s credibility following an incident where Mr Doyle alleged he was “verbally assaulted” by the solicitor in the court precincts.

Mr Buckley denied that happened, a digital recording showed words were said and Mr Buckley was insisting the taxing master was not entitled to listen to that recording, counsel said.

Abuse of process

Mr Buckley’s case should be dismissed as an abuse of process, he urged. Because of the way he had presented his case, he was essentially asking the High Court to allow costs he had claimed even where he had acknowledged some of his fees claimed were excessive. The solicitor had also brought other proceedings in which his claims disputing the taxing master’s jurisdiction were rejected.

Counsel was making arguments at the close of Mr Buckley’s case arising from his objections to decisions of the taxing master on certain bills of costs provided by the solicitor to Mr Doyle. Mr Justice Donald Binchy has reserved judgment.

The taxing master issued a determination last January which awaits finalisation pending the outcome of Mr Buckley’s application for a High Court review.

In replaying arguments, Mr Buckley said the relevant rules and law governing costs meant he was entitled to have the court validate his bills of costs. What happened here was the taxing master “threw me out the window and then he threw the rule book after”.

He said he had bills of costs with the client’s endorsement on them and the taxing master had failed to address a range of issues, including the breakdown of time he had expended on work for his client.

Although Mr McDermott had complained about billing for four hours’ costs concerning consent applications for adjournments of cases, those bills were for time spent at meetings and other work for the client, he said. The taxing master was also “plain wrong” in other conclusions as he had not taken into account some costs were on a solicitor-client basis.

Legal bills

Addressing a claim by Mr McDermott that Mr Buckley billed some €7,000 or €8,000 for senior counsel fees when the counsel involved has indicated his fee was €1,500 plus VAT, Mr Buckley said that counsel was retained in the case which ran for 2½ years and was entitled to the payment.

Earlier, Mr McDermott said the taxing master had noted, on occasions when the relevant case was adjourned on consent, Mr Buckley charged the client for the maximum four hours’ court attendance.

Mr Buckley had agreed with the taxing master a €60,000 fee charged by him on one occasion was excessive and unjustifiable and that fee was reduced to €6,000, he said.

The taxing master also reduced to €100 a charge of €3,000 for postage and sundries and Mr Buckley had not argued he was using “Penny Black” stamps.

The taxing master also found Mr Buckley charged eight hours for reviewing correspondence when all he had done was send another lawyer’s letter to the client with no comment.

The court has heard Mr Doyle has separate proceedings against his former solicitor, seeking a sum of €565,000 in a client account which Mr Doyle alleges is his. Mr Buckley, who claims he is owed the disputed money in fees, had said some €45,000 remains in that account.

That case is on hold pending the outcome of Mr Buckley’s application for review of the taxing master’s decisions.