Family Court judge Robert Benjamin has referred two lawyers to the legal services watchdog over their “outrageous” and “eye watering” fees, which totalled $860,000 for a couple who were battling over property, parenting arrangements for their two children and child support.
In a judgment released by the court today, Justice Benjamin said he had become “increasingly concerned about the high levels of costs charged by the legal profession in property and parenting proceedings” and had expressed concern in previous judgments, which had gone “unheeded”.
“In the Sydney Registry of the Family Court I have observed what seems to be a culture of bitter, adversarial and highly aggressive family law litigation,” he said.
“Whether this win at all costs, concede little or nothing, chase every rabbit down every hole and hang the consequences approach to family law litigation is a reflection of a Sydney-based culture by some or many litigants or whether it is an approach by some legal practitioners or a combination of both, I do not know.
“Whichever is the cause, the consequences of obscenely high legal costs are destructive of the emotional, social and financial wellbeing of the parties and their children. It must stop.”
The mother’s legal bills totalled about $353,000, while the father’s legal costs totalled about $506,000.
Justice Benjamin said the amounts were, “on their face, outrageous levels of costs for ordinary people involved in family law proceedings”.
He criticised the solicitors for forwarding “inflammatory” and “verbose” letters from their clients, saying lawyers should ensure correspondence was “necessary, balanced, considered and relevant”.
“Solicitors are not employed to act as ‘postman’ to vent the anger and vitriol of their clients,” he said.
Lawyers had a duty to minimise costs and reduce conflict, but all family law judges had seen cases in which the parties’ financial circumstances had been “emasculated or wholly lost” because of their legal bills.
“These are outrageous and often unnecessary outcomes,” he said.
In this case, the legal bills had taken a “terrible toll” on the wealth of the parents and their ability to support and provide for their children.
The judge has referred the lawyers to the Legal Services Commissioner to see whether their bills could constitute professional misconduct or unsatisfactory professional conduct — which could result in disciplinary action.