What constitutes a solicitors’ bill?
This was a question recently considered by a Costs Judge in London.
The Defendant firm of solicitors acted for the Claimant in a dispute between July and October 2020. During that period, they issued a series of invoices totalling £80k. A balance of £27k is outstanding. In January 2022, the Defendant sent a letter before claim. In July 2022, the Claimant commenced the instant proceedings for delivery of a statute bill.
Solicitors Act 1974
A “statute bill” is a solicitors’ invoice which complies with the provisions of the Solicitors Act.
Whether final or interim, it must be “signed” by, or with the authority of, the solicitor or attached to a covering letter so signed and referring to the bill. (Section 69 (2A)).
The Claimant contended that unsigned invoices were not “statute bills”, emails were not “letters”, and therefore the invoices were not “delivered”. They sought an order for the delivery by a solicitor of a bill of costs under Section 68.
Are the invoices statute bills?
A solicitor’s retainer is an entire contract and, save in two circumstances, solicitors are not entitled to payment on account other than for disbursements. The exceptions are, first, where there is a natural break in protracted litigation and, secondly, where there is an agreement that the solicitor can submit interim statute bills.
In Chamberlain v Boodle & King (1982), the retainer did not allow for interim bills but made provision for regular “statements”. Over a six-month period, with no natural breaks, four bills were delivered to the client. The Court of Appeal held that the bills “…should be regarded as one bill in respect of one complete piece of work, although divided into parts”.
The invoices in the instant case constituted a Chamberlain bill with sufficient detail across the six invoices. Further, time sheets were included.
Were the invoices signed?
There was no evidence that the person creating the invoice was authorised to sign it for the purposes of the Solicitors Act. That said, the email signature “…was clearly applied with authenticating intent.”
…the electronic signatures on the emails were electronic signatures for the purposes of [the Solicitors Act]
Were the invoices delivered to the Claimant?
The Claimant had accepted the Defendant’s terms of business, which provided:
You [the client] agree that we may serve formal notices and documents (including service of any legal proceedings) upon you by email, or any other method of electronic communications permitted by law, by using any email address or other electronic identification that you have provided to us, or that you have used for communicating with us.
Senior Costs Judge Gordon-Saker opined that:
In my view …the purpose [of Section 69(2A)] …is to convey to the client that the bill has been authorised by the solicitor. That can be done by either a signature on the bill or a signature on the communication that accompanies the bill…
It would… be absurd if a solicitor, sending a bill by email, were required to send, as another attachment, a letter in pdf form which contained no more information than that contained in [his] email.
The invoices were delivered to the Claimant for the purposes of the Solicitors Act.
…the parties would be well advised to talk to each other to try to reach an accommodation which would avoid further costs.Senior Costs Judge Gordon-Saker at