A London law firm that has in the past been sued by Checkmylegalfees.com (CMLF) has now bought the brand.
CMLF will continue to operate as before under the ownership of Richard Slade & Co, with its founder, Mark Carlisle, still playing a major role in the operation.
Mr Carlisle approached Mr Slade about a possible acquisition in the wake of last October’s Court of Appeal decision in Belsner, in which the Master of the Rolls, Sir Geoffrey Vos, described as “unsatisfactory” a business model like CMLF’s “that allows them to bring expensive High Court litigation to assess modest solicitors’ bills in cases of this kind”.
He continued: “The Legal Ombudsman scheme would be a cheaper and more effective method of querying solicitors’ bills in these circumstances, but the whole court process of assessment of solicitors’ bills in contentious and non-contentious business requires careful review and significant reform.”
Previously a partner at Bracher Rawlins, Mr Slade set up his firm in 2008. It handles all types of disputes, ranging from very small to commercial matters worth more than £100m, as well as property and family work.
Mr Slade has 12 members of staff – with its caseload growing, he is looking to recruit at the moment – and the firm turned over £4.5m in its last year, with a profit of £1m.
He has been a party in multiple reported decisions about costs – far more than most firms – but said “I don’t consider myself aggressive”.
He explained: “I go out of my way to help clients, including former clients, the best I can. But I’m not going to be abused by people. If they don’t pay, after giving them every opportunity, I tend to sue… Unlike many firms, I suspect, I don’t mind litigating over costs.”
He said Mr Carlisle approached him about buying CMLF in the wake of the Belsner decision. He said the pair had always got on well even when CMLF was suing the firm.
“I don’t take things personally,” Mr Slade said. “Some people get terribly upset when others take different points of view. If your work is litigation, it would be perverse to get upset [by that].”
He described the CMLF brand as “fantastic”, adding: “It captures the essence. It seems to me there is absolutely nothing wrong in helping clients hold their lawyers to account within the four corners of the law…
“I intend to continue to represent anyone who comes to me through the CMLF banner and appears to me to have a legitimate complaint.”
Mr Slade said Belsner had not damaged the brand among the public and he was unconcerned about the negative views most lawyers had of it.
He said he followed the spirit of the cab-rank rule. “So long as I’m ethically happy with what I’m doing in terms of providing representation and providing a voice for people who ask me to do that, that’s what we’re all about…
“If we only acted on cases of which we all approve, there wouldn’t be a legal profession.”
Mr Slade added: “If you’re a small firm of solicitors specialising in quite high-risk litigation, it would be naïve to assume clients who get into disputes with other parties wouldn’t get into litigation with their lawyers.”
The reality too was that some law firms overcharged – such as by imposing a blanket 100% success fee in personal injury cases, irrespective of the risk – and “feared” solicitor/client costs assessments.
“Many of those firms are perhaps somewhat out-of-date in their billing practices and their retainers agreements, and clients who wish to take those firms on over their bills are entitled to competent representation.”
It was, he added, “absolutely extraordinary” how few solicitors understood the law of costs, although he agreed that it needed to be updated.
CMLF was bullish in the wake of Belsner but Mr Slade said they had taken the Master of the Rolls’ comments into account and would direct cases to the Legal Ombudsman where appropriate.
He also hoped to move “up the food chain” and target more costs disputes involving business clients. “Many disputes about costs, where measured in millions, could be handled by CMLF.com.”
He argued that Mr Carlisle’s work had delivered rulings which were “hugely beneficial to clients”.
“His detractors focus on cases like Belsner and don’t look at the decisions where he was successful – and affect far more people. That’s why I’ve always had respect for Mark…
“I’m very open to looking at interesting new arguments in field of costs and Mark’s been very successful at generating them.”
Mr Carlisle said: “It’s great to be joining forces with Richard and his team, who we know are all formidable litigators, and perfect timing with the introduction later this year of fixed recoverable costs to a much broader range of legal matters.”