B.C. Court of Appeal upholds judicial intervention to trim legal bill to $5 million
Three judges on B.C.'s highest court have declared in a recent ruling that lawyers are "not venture capitalists".
And therefore, their bills "must not be so disproportionate to the work done as to impugn the integrity of the legal profession".
Writing for the trio, Justice Mary Newbury dismissed an appeal by the law firm of Hungerford Tomyn Lawrenson and Nichols against a B.C. Supreme Court ruling that shaved $4 million off its bill.
"The Court agreed with the chambers judge that the fee in this case was excessive in light of the statutory factors and all other circumstances to be considered, including those unique to contingency fee agreements and including the work actually done by the Firm," Newbury wrote.
The judges also dismissed a cross-appeal from the client, Kirsten Mide-Wilson, who wanted her bill reduced to $2.5 million.
Last year, the Straight reported that the law firm originally submitted a bill of $16.97 million to Mide-Wilson under a contingency-fee agreement.
This came after lawyers Gavin Crickmore and Harry Tomyn successfully obtained a settlement in the estate of Mide-Wilson's grandfather Jack Cewe.
Cewe, a deceased construction magnate, had written several wills. One awarded the bulk of the estate to his long-term lover, Alice Gibson, and Cewe's financial adviser, George Home.
The law firm negotiated the settlement after eight months of work and prior to going to examination for discovery.
Under the terms, the law firm was permitted to collect 20 percent of the value of the award, which Newbury's ruling estimated at $100 million.
Mide-Wilson, however, had previously argued that the estate was only worth $44.7 million.
Initially, Hungerford Tomyn Lawrenson and Nichols offered to reduce its bill from $16.97 million to $12 million.
Mide-Wilson rejected this and challenged the validity of the contingency agreement.
A registrar, Kathryn Sainty, later upheld the arrangement, but reduced the fee to $9 million.
That prompted Mide-Wilson to have this decision reviewed in B.C. Supreme Court. There Justice Richard Goepel substituted a $5-million award.
Goepel also upheld the legal arrangement.
"A contingency fee agreement is not a lottery ticket," Goepel declared at the time to justify the lower fee.
Newbury's recent ruling stated that an "important purpose of contingency fee agreements was to ensure access to justice".
"However, such agreements have always been regulated and subject to court supervision, in large part to ensure the integrity of the legal profession is maintained," she added.
The B.C. Court of Appeal decision also stated that a $5-million fee "is not an exorbitant or grossly excessive amount that would reflect negatively on the integrity of the profession".
There was no determination made on the value of Cewe's estate.