Decision date: 28 September 2018 Sofronoff P; Morrison JA; Philippides JA
The applicant firm represented the respondent in a proceeding which settled. On 28 April 2015, the applicant sent the respondent a letter which calculated the amount payable to the respondent under the settlement after deductions, and a ‘tax invoice’ that set out a lump sum for the applicant’s professional fees and itemised the outlays payable to third parties. The respondent signed a form of authority authorising the distribution of funds in the applicant’s trust account in accordance with the terms of the letter. The applicant drew the relevant amount to satisfy the invoice. On 21 March 2016, the respondent requested an itemised bill, which she received on 19 May 2016. Nearly a year then passed until the respondent filed an application for a costs assessment, under the Legal Profession Act 2007 (Qld) (the Act), s 335. Section 335(5)(a) provides that an application for a costs assessment made by a client or third party payer must be made within 12 months after “the bill was given, or the request for payment was made, to the client or third party payer”. The issue was whether “the bill” for the purposes of s 335(5)(a) was the lump sum bill constituted by the ‘tax invoice’, or the itemised bill. The Magistrate considered that “the bill” referred to the tax invoice, such that the respondent’s application was out of time. This was overturned on appeal to the District Court, the judge finding that the delivery of the itemised bill triggered a fresh limitation period. The applicant sought leave to appeal to the Queensland Court of Appeal.
The Court granted leave and allowed the appeal. Leave was granted because the question of construction was of importance to the legal profession, not just in Queensland, but in Australia generally, given similar legislation in other states: . There was nothing in s 335 that, for the purposes of an application for the assessment of legal costs, promoted the importance of an itemised bill over a lump sum bill, or even distinguished between them, vis-à-vis other provisions in the Act which drew such distinctions. The Act also provided ample time for an application to be made even if an itemised bill was not initially delivered, as a request for delivery of an itemised bill must be met by a law practice within 28 days: -. If the construction contended for by the respondent were true, then a client who had received a lump sum bill would be able to extend the limitation period to two years merely by making a request for an itemised bill. Nothing in the statute suggested that such a form of self-help was intended. Although the relevant chapter of the Act constituted a form of consumer protection, this could not justify according a meaning to the provisions not justified by the text: -.