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FAQ by Clients

Frequently Asked Questions – by Clients

What is the Fee Disputes Program?
How does the process work? Can I appeal the decision?
Can I settle this fee dispute myself with my attorney?
Will I have to travel?
How long does this take?
Is it a fair process?
Does the attorney have to follow the same rules?
Is there a cost involved?
Do I need an attorney to represent me in this fee dispute?
Can I still talk with my attorney? Who will handle my legal case during all this?
Do I send you my original documents?
Do you handle all claims?
I paid the attorney bills for someone else, but was not otherwise involved in the legal matter. Can I file a claim?
I am in jail, hospitalized or otherwise unable to meet with the investigator or hearing panel. Can I still participate?
What about conflicts of interest? Aren't all attorneys in cahoots together?
How do I get started? Who do I call with questions about my claim once I have started?

 

What is the Fee Disputes Program?
It is a free program by the South Carolina Bar and Supreme Court of South Carolina for resolving fee disputes between you and your attorney, without need for going to court or other more formal processes. It is run by the Resolution of Fee Disputes Board (“Board”) housed at the South Carolina Bar, P.O. Box 608, Columbia, SC 29202. Read below to learn what disputes are covered, how the process works, and how to contact us.

How does the process work? Can I appeal the decision?
Rule 416 of the South Carolina Appellate Court Rules (SCACR) has sub-rules that spell out the full fee dispute process. In a nutshell, this is a voluntary arbitration where you and your attorney both tell an Assigned Member from your community your side of the story regarding the fees you dispute.   The Assigned Member investigates the matter and helps you and your attorney to reach a compromise or settlement, if possible and appropriate. Otherwise, the Assigned Member within 30-90 days of his/her appointment makes a recommendation to a local Circuit Chair of how the matter should be resolved. The Circuit Chair will either issue a decision agreeing with that recommendation, or will refer your dispute to a hearing panel of three assigned members for their review. (If the amount in dispute is over $5,000, you or your attorney can appeal the Chair's decision to a hearing panel anyway. ) Once a hearing panel hears both sides and issues a decision, that decision is final unless you or your attorney appeal it to your local circuit court within 30 days.   A court can vacate – i.e. , strike down – a Board decision only for one of five very specific reasons spelled out in Rule 20 , mostly dealing with how the Board processed your complaint and not on the merits or facts of your complaint. To ensure finality of your fee dispute decision, an appeal will be limited to only these five reasons; neither you nor your attorney will be allowed to re-argue the facts and merits of your fee dispute, except to the extent those facts relate to these five grounds for appeal.

Can I settle this fee dispute myself with my attorney?
Yes, please do; but do not feel you must, and certainly feel free to consult another attorney before you do. Compromise is encouraged where feasible and appropriate and can be written or oral – albeit written is preferred, since it avoids misunderstandings. If you have already filed a fee dispute claim with us, then any such compromise or consent agreement you might reach with your attorney should be communicated immediately to the Circuit Chair, who will send you and your attorney a letter confirming that agreement. Your compromise or agreement becomes the final decision of the Board fifteen (15) days after the date of that letter by the Circuit Chair. See Rule 11, ¶3.

Will I have to travel?

Usually not. The volunteers assigned to investigate or hear your fee dispute are selected in or near the county where your attorney's principal practice is located. If you hired an attorney far from where you currently live or work, than you may need to travel for this process.

How long does this take?
The process starts as soon as you file your claim with us, and should take no longer than six months, although sometimes it can. Deadlines and timelines appear in the rules. Various factors can impact the timing of your claim, including how complete and clear your application is, how quickly you and everyone else responds to inquiries and requests by the Board, and whether appeals are taken by you or your attorney.

Is it a fair process?
Yes. You are given every opportunity to explain to one or more unbiased third persons your side of the story. If at any time prior to a final decision, you change your mind and want out, you need only withdraw in writing.  See Rule 16 (Voluntary Termination). Even after a final decision, you can appeal it to a circuit court, but only on narrow grounds such as fraud, bias, overreaching, no notice, and the like; you cannot re-argue the facts or merits of your case. See Rule 20 (Appeals). This is a voluntary process; you need not participate if you do not want to. [However, if you do choose to participate, your attorney must also participate – he/she has no choice. See Rule 9 (Rule Exclusive Upon Consent). ]

Does the attorney have to follow the same rules?
Yes. If you choose to participate, then the attorney must participate. See Rule 9 (Rule Exclusive Upon Consent). Moreover, both you and the attorney must abide by the decision of the Board, which can be enforced like a judgment in court. See Rule 19 (Compliance). If a decision issues against an attorney and the attorney does not comply, the Supreme Court's Commission on Lawyer Conduct is notified and can also take action against the attorney. See Rule 19 (Compliance).

Is there a cost involved?
No, this is a free process funded by the South Carolina Bar.   The investigators and panelists hearing your case are volunteers and are not paid for their services.

Do I need an attorney to represent me in this fee dispute?
Not necessarily. This process is designed to simplify as much as possible the resolution of claims by average citizens.  You are welcome to hire an attorney to advise and help you with this process, but it is not required and rarely done.  In addition to hiring an attorney, should your matter go before a hearing panel, under Rule 14 , you may ask for a member of the Board to represent you.   However, in that event, you are not guaranteed an attorney; it is up to the discretion of the Circuit Chair who will look at your income, your education, and your overall situation. See above to learn more about hearing panels and the fee dispute process. If the legal matter for which you hired your attorney is ongoing and unresolved, then you should be sure to at least discuss your options with both your current attorney and a prospective new attorney.

Can I still talk with my attorney? Who will handle my legal case during all this?
That is up to you. If a new attorney represents you already, please discuss this issue with him or her. Generally, fee dispute claims should be filed only as a last resort, after a client and attorney have talked the matter over and are unable to reach an agreement on the bill. If the legal matter for which you hired your attorney is still ongoing or unresolved, then you should be sure to at least discuss your options with your current attorney and a prospective new attorney, and to reach some agreement on who is handling your legal case going forward. Do not count on deadlines in your underlying legal matter to be extended or excused because you filed a fee dispute claim with this program; please consult your current or future attorney on this question, since the Board will only resolve your fee dispute and is not able to advise you on these other matters.

Do I send you my original documents?
No, please do not send us your original documents; the only originals we want are your application explaining to us your fee dispute. While you may attach copies of receipts, checks, invoices and other documents to support your application, please send us only copies of them, keeping your originals yourself in a safe place.

Do you handle all claims?
No. Rule 2 describes what claims are eligible for this program. The Board will only consider fee disputes and not other complaints you might have against your attorney. For purposes of this program, a "fee" includes payments for legal services as well as for costs or expenses of litigation; it also includes disbursements related to your legal case, claim or matter (e.g. , amounts your attorney may have withheld from a settlement or judgment). The Board will not consider claims: equal to or over $50,000; more than 3 years old; involving dissolutions of law partnerships or attorney businesses; already covered by other courts, commissions or tribunals; or attorney-attorney fee disputes (unless all parties agree and the dispute arises out of a single case or fee sharing arrangement).

I paid the attorney bills for someone else, but was not otherwise involved in the legal matter. Can I file a claim?
No. Only the “client” may file the claim.   See Rule 2. As the person paying the bills, you are a possible witness and may or may not be heard on the matter; but for the claim to even be processed, the person represented by the attorney must sign and file the application.

I am in jail, hospitalized, or otherwise unable to meet with the investigator or hearing panel. Can I still participate?
Yes, you can still participate, but likely only by a written statement or by written responses posed by the Assigned Member or Hearing Panel, unless other arrangements are made. See Rule 11, ¶2 and Rule 15, ¶3.

What about conflicts of interest? Aren't all attorneys in cahoots together? No. The volunteers in this program are ethically and legally bound to follow these rules and strict codes of ethics and procedure to ensure you receive a fair shake. If you know of any specific conflict of interest with the persons assigned to hear your claim, please let us know immediately. Under Rule 18, reassignments to other volunteers can cure the problem or even the appearance of a problem.

How do I get started? Who do I call with questions about my claim once I have started?
To start the process, or to answer your general questions, contact Michelle Dennis at the South Carolina Bar: mdennis@scbar.org or 803-799-4015, ext. 163. If you have no questions, complete and return to Ms. Dennis this application. Our mailing address is Resolution of Fee Disputes Board, c/o South Carolina Bar, P.O. Box 608, Columbia, SC 29202. Once a claim has been filed, we send it to a Circuit Chair who sends it to an Assigned Member in your community. See above. At that point, you can still contact us if you need, but please directly contact the Circuit Chair or Assigned Member with information or documents he or she might request or need to investigate your claim.