Watchdog Group Says Reform is Needed in Resolving Disputes with Attorneys

Washington, DC— Today the nation's first comprehensive study of the out-of-court programs that resolve lawyer-client fee disputes ranked Hawaii's fee arbitration system 30th in the nation and issued the state's program a D+ grade. To spur reform of these important but under-utilized forums, legal consumer watchdog group HALT - An Organization of Americans for Legal Reform released its 2007 Fee Arbitration Report Card, analyzing programs in all 50 states and D.C.

"The most pervasive complaint about lawyers is that their fees are too high for the work done," stated HALT Senior Counsel Suzanne M. Blonder. "Hawaii has a program that's meant to help clients and lawyers resolve everyday fee disputes, but unfortunately the state's rules allow lawyers to reject a client's request to settle the conflict through arbitration - forcing many consumers to take their cases to court, which can be time-consuming and often cost-prohibitive."

HALT also faulted the Hawaii State Bar Association for failing to use formal methods to enforce arbitration awards against attorneys; bar associations in other states automatically suspend lawyers if they unreasonably delay compliance with an arbitrator's decision. "Even the best fee arbitration system is worthless if it does not provide clients with a mechanism for obtaining a refund when a panel has found that a lawyer inflated a bill," explained Blonder.

HALT's Report Card graded states in six categories: (1) whether lawyers must participate in arbitration at a client's request; (2) the ease of initiating arbitration; (3) the amount of publicity of the state's fee arbitration system; (4) the program's reliance on non-lawyer arbitrators; (5) whether non-binding mediation is offered as an alternative to arbitration; and (6) how the system enforces arbitration awards.

The top five states - D.C., Maine, New Jersey, New York and California - scored no higher than a B average on the Report Card. Three states - New Hampshire, Vermont and West Virginia - flunked. Another eight received Incompletes because they do not offer statewide systems to settle lawyer-client fee disputes.

"In an era of skyrocketing lawyer fees, we hope Hawaii officials will reform the state's fee arbitration program so that more clients can effectively resolve disputes with attorneys," stated Blonder.

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