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Costly counsel

Published:Sunday | March 28, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Price of justice varies depending on case and client background

Philip Hamilton, Sunday Gleaner Writer

FINDING THE 'right' attorney to represent you in court could mean the difference between freedom and incarceration.

But there are several factors that Jamaicans consider before determining which lawyer is to be retained.

Experienced courtroom watchers can quickly point out lawyers and state their strong points, including experience, specialisation and win-loss record.

But for many, choosing a lawyer often comes down to cost.

"Mi did want a QC (Queen's Counsel) to represent me boy who dem frame fi shooting, but when me hear the price mi did have fi take a next one," one woman told The Sunday Gleaner recently.

However, Queen's Counsel Patrick Foster, an attorney at law firm Nunes Scholefield Deleon and Company, says the experience factor is extremely crucial.

"In Civil Court proceedings, a lot of factors are taken into account, such as the type of case, whether it is complex, or involves some novel legal issues. The experience of the attorney involved is one of the factors taken into account," said Foster, who has more than 25 years' legal experience.

Another prominent attorney, who spoke with The Sunday Gleaner on condition of anonymity, agreed with Foster.

"When you want to retain an attorney, you need to ensure the person you choose has had experience with cases similar to yours," said the attorney with 15 years' experience under his belt.

But, like the Flankers resident - whose only son is facing charges of illegal possession of a firearm and shooting with intent - it all comes down to the money.

"Mi know a lawyer who could buss the case fi me son, but me nuh have dem kind a money dat him charge," she said with a tinge of regret in her voice.

Checks by The Sunday Gleaner revealed attorney fees are usually set in accordance with the Fair Competition Act.

Prior to the implementation of the act in 1993, the range of fees was determined through the Jamaican Bar Association.

Typically, in most civil cases, attorneys set fees on a time-and-charge basis, based on the length of time spent on a matter and the number of hours.

Fees charged by some law firms for civil cases can range anywhere between $8,000 and $25,000 per hour.

Fees for court work will also vary, depending on the lawyer, as well as the type of case handled.

Sometimes, lawyers will adjust the hours out of deference to clients.

Of course, an experienced attorney will command higher fees than persons recently called to the Bar.

In criminal matters, the more serious offences, such as murder, generally attract higher fees.

Another attorney, who spoke with The Sunday Gleaner, said fees charged for civil and criminal cases varied based on the type of court where the matter is heard.

For example, cases involving civil matters may range anywhere between $30,000 and $75,000 in a Resident Magistrate's Court, and from $200,000 to $300,000 in the Supreme Court.

Rates may soar to between $300,000 and $500,000 if the matter is taken to the Court of Appeal.

Criminal cases heard in a Resident Magistrate's Court range anywhere between $100,000 and $200,000, increasing to $300,000 if the matter goes to the Circuit Court.

In the Appeals Court, legal fees may start as high as $300,000.

On matters involving real estate, legal fees are usually determined by the value of the property or transaction involved.

Foster says fees may range between one and three per cent of the value of the property.

Some attorneys charge con-tingency fees for services, with the money payable only if there is a successful result.

An example is that of the personal-injury lawyer who charges anywhere between 20 and 30 per cent of what a client is covered for in a claim should he win the case.

However, this has to be agreed beforehand.

Most civil and criminal cases require that a retainer or down payment be paid to start the relationship between attorney and client.

The Sunday Gleaner understands that it is not uncommon for fees to be influenced by the client's ability to pay.

"If a client from a lower social background with a particular problem walks into a lawyer's office, he may be charged less than a wealthy, high-profile client with a similar problem," said a prominent attorney to whom The Sunday Gleaner spoke.