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High Court backs law firm in dispute over £194,000 asylum bill
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A costs judge has backed a leading firm of solicitors in its dispute with a former client over a £194,000 bill for work on her asylum case. The judgment is Farrer & Co LLP v Yertayeva  EWHC B16 (Costs).
Ms Yertayeva is a Kazakhstani businesswoman, described by the judge as being “from a background of extreme wealth”. She sought asylum in the UK after being “charged with serious financial crimes in Kazakhstan, connected to even more severe allegations of criminal conduct of her former husband”. The court heard that she “was, and remains, in extreme fear of being returned to Kazakhstan as she believes that she would be arrested, subjected to torture and denied the right to a fair trial”.
By the time she sought help from Farrer & Co, Ms Yertayeva had already lodged her claim, attended a screening interview and faced a looming deadline for submitting additional grounds for why she should be granted permission to remain in the UK.
The firm thought it would be a complicated case. Ms Yertayeva would have to establish that the charges against her were “politically motivated”, requiring “expert reports and local lawyers’ witness statements”. Farrer & Co partner Elena Hinchin told the court that at an initial meeting at Côte Brasserie in Hampstead, she quoted “potential fees at around £250,000-£350,000 for the first stage of work, though she warned that they might end up being significantly higher”.
A letter of engagement signed in November 2018 revised the estimate down a little. It said that “although it is difﬁcult to provide an accurate fee assessment at this point, I expect that the core aspects of work relating to your asylum claim will cost in the region of £200,000 – £280,000 at ﬁrst instance, for work done up until but excluding the need to lodge an appeal”. It quoted hourly rates ranging from £200 for a paralegal to £600 for the head of the immigration department.
In the event, Ms Yertayeva seems to have switched lawyers before the asylum claim was decided, but not until May 2019. Farrer & Co’s bill for work done up to that point was £194,220.36, “of which £141,048.80 represents profit costs and £53,171.56 disbursements. The outstanding balance claimed is £123,586.05”.
Ms Yertayeva told the court that she had been overcharged:
The Defendant says that when she arrived in the UK she did not have any knowledge of the sort of charges that will normally be rendered for an asylum claim. Now, she says, she knows that an adviser, like her current adviser, Kadmos Consultants Ltd, will charge about £10,000, and that it is sufficient only to get a country report from one expert at a cost of £8,000.
But Costs Judge Leonard noted that there was “no such thing” as a “normal” or “standard” cost of an asylum claim.
Miss Hinchin is in my view entitled to compare the level of fees typically charged by the Claimant for matters such as this with rival firms such as Fladgate, who like Ms Hinchin act for high net worth clients and charge accordingly. There is no proper basis for characterising the hourly rates rendered by such firms as “unusual”. From my own experience I am aware of the high fees that may be claimed in complex asylum and extradition claims, and this was a complex claim…
The judge also found that Ms Yertayeva had been advised that she “could instruct less expensive solicitors” and had “instructed the Claimant in the knowledge that less expensive solicitors would be available”. A “sophisticated” client, she “understood the level of service the Claimant proposed to offer, she wanted that level of service and she was prepared to undertake the expenditure attendant upon that level of service, because she wanted to give her asylum application every chance of success”.
Ms Yertayeva argued that she had not given informed consent to the letter of engagement. While it was “common ground that she was in a state of distress” at the time, there was no medical evidence suggesting that she was incapable of making informed decisions, the judge found. He also rejected challenges to specific items in the bill, including the £20,370 fee for advice from Raza Husain QC and a similar amount for an expert report by “an intelligence company with expertise in Kazakhstan”.
Overall, the judge concluded, “I regard the allegations of overcharging, exploitation and other misconduct levelled by the Defendant at the Claimant to be unfair and untrue”.