Written Retainer Agreement Ousts Small Claim Court’s Jurisdiction

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If you’re an Ontario litigator and thought suing your client for fees in Small Claims Court based upon a written retainer agreement was an option, then take a read of Justice Nordheimer’s decision in Jane Conte Professional Corporation v. Josephine Smith, 2014 ONSC 6009 (CanLII), (Div.Ct.).

The case dealt with an appeal by the defendant client from the decision of Deputy Judge Prattas, dated April 29, 2014, dismissing her motion to dismiss her former counsel’s action for unpaid accounts.  The plaintiff lawyer commenced an action against the client defendant in the Small Claims Court seeking to recover payment of the sum of $26,051.59 pursuant to a contingency fee agreement relating to a personal injury action.  Nordheimer J. allowed the appeal, set aside the order of the Deputy Judge and dismissed the claim for want of jurisdiction and held, in part:

[16]      It will be seen from these sections that the Legislature has established a process by which the validity and enforceability of written fee agreements between lawyers and clients are to be handled.  There is nothing in any of these sections that gives any authority to the Small Claims Court to consider issues arising under a written fee agreement including a contingency fee agreement.  Indeed, as I have already mentioned, the Small Claims Court is expressly excluded from considering such matters.

[20] In my view, once a lawyer chooses to enter into a written agreement with his or her client “respecting the amount and manner of payment for the whole or a part of any past or future services in respect of business done or to be done by the solicitor” then the lawyer is bound by the procedures set out in ss. 20 to 32 of the Solicitors Act. In particular, if the lawyer wishes to enforce the agreement then he or she must, as set out in s. 23, bring an application for that purpose in the court “in which the business or any part of it was done or a judge thereof, or, if the business was not done in any court, by the Superior Court of Justice”. I repeat that s. 23 expressly excludes the Small Claims Court from this authority.

Nordheimer J. expressly rejected the former lawyer’s argument that the contingency fee agreement was a “hybrid” agreement, ousting it from judicial scrutiny under ss.20-32 of the Solicitors Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. S.15, stating:

[23]      Further, even if the respondent is correct that the Agreement in this case was both a contingency fee agreement and a regular fee agreement, depending on how events unfolded, that result would not take the Agreement outside the application of ss. 20 to 32 including the enforcement procedure set out in s. 23 since those provisions apply to all written fee agreements.

[24]      Consequently, I concluded that the Small Claims Court had no jurisdiction to consider a claim made by a lawyer based on a written fee agreement including a contingency fee agreement.  I would note, in passing, that this conclusion appears to be consistent with the general rule that questions involving the nature, validity or effect of a contingency fee agreement should be resolved by judges:  Cookish v. Paul Lee Associates Professional Corp.,[2013] O.J. No. 1947 (C.A.) at para. 39.

This decision may come as a big surprise to most who sue their clients for unpaid legal accounts in Small Claims Court.

It is puzzling that the Small Claims Court retains jurisdiction in actions between a lawyer and client for unpaid accounts where there is no written retainer agreement, but loses jurisdiction where there is a written retainer agreement. Of course, all contingency fee agreements must be in writing pursuant s. 28.1(4) of the Solicitors Act.

Incidentally, the Court of Appeal for Ontario previously held that where a written retainer agreement includes an  arbitration clause for fee disputes, it is enforceable, as long as the arbitrator applies the protections under the Solicitors Act: : see, Jean Estate v. Wires Jolley LLP, 2009 ONCA 339 (CanLII) (Ont. C.A.).

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2 Responses to “Written Retainer Agreement Ousts Small Claim Court’s Jurisdiction”

  1. Chris Jaglowitz (@chrisjaglowitz) Says:

    Welcome back, Antonin, and thanks for this timely piece as year end approaches and it becomes time for me to pull out bigger guns to recover old unpaid accounts!

  2. Ted Folkman Says:

    Welcome back! I missed The Trial Warrior. The blogosphere applauds your return. Do you intend any changes to your themes that you’re willing to share?

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