The Limitation Act 1980 And Recovery Of Unpaid Solicitors’ Fees

Narayanasamy v Karim & Anor [2020] EWHC B22

When does the limitation period begin to run for the purpose of recovering unpaid fees?

In this case, in which the client’s former solicitor sought a detailed assessment of his unpaid fees, Master Leonard found that the contract of retainer between the solicitor and his former client had ended in April 2013 when the solicitor’s partnership was converted to a limited company and he ceased to practice in his own name.

Consequently, applying principles established by the Court of Appeal in the nineteenth century case of Coburn v Colledge [1897] 1 QB 702, it was determined that, despite the final bill not having been rendered until January 2014, any right to take legal action to recover payment for his legal services had been statute barred since the beginning of April 2019.

“In Coburn v Colledge [1897] 1 QB 702 the Court of Appeal found that a solicitor’s cause of action accrues as soon as the work for which payment is sought has been completed. The solicitor had argued that because statutory provisions (still in effect now, under the 1974 Act) prevented a solicitor from suing until after a month of delivery of a bill of costs, the limitation period would not start to run until that point. The consequence of that argument, Lopes L.J. observed, would be that

“the solicitor may abstain from delivering his bill for twenty years, and then at the end of that time he may deliver it and sue after the expiration of a month from its delivery.”