Permission to appeal is not needed for a chambers judge reserved decision regarding an appeal by an Applicant law firm that entered into a contingency fee with a First Nation for 20% that resulted in around $11 million dollars for a relatively small amount of work. The decision under appeal is not a decision “as to costs alone.” However, the decision under appeal is interlocutory in nature because the chambers judge’s final order on the amount of recoverable fees has not yet been issued. Appeals of interlocutory decisions are generally discouraged. Interlocutory appeals may turn out to be unnecessary and are normally contrary to the Court of Appeal’s policy against litigation by installment.
Rath & Company and Jeffrey Rath [“Applicants”] apply for confirmation by way of declaration that they have a right to appeal a decision of a chambers judge overturning a Review Officer’s decision that a contingency fee agreement was reasonable. In the alternative, they seek permission to appeal, if their appeal is of a decision “as to costs alone.”
In 2015, Tallcree First Nation [“Tallcree”] entered into a contingency fee agreement with the Applicants, who were retained to settle certain agricultural benefits claims under Treaty 8 made by Tallcree against the federal government. The initial contingency fee agreed to was 20%. The Applicants resolved the agricultural claims quickly, although Tallcree did not receive the payment of $57,590,375 from the federal government until 2018. The 20% contingency amounted to $11,518,075. Tallcree subsequently applied for a review of the contingency fee agreement under the Alberta Rules of Court. The Review Officer was asked to determine whether the 20% contingency fee was reasonable. It appears that all the Applicants did on this matter was file a formal claim, send a three-page settlement letter, and engage in “minor negotiations”.
The Review Officer found that the contingency fee was “not … clearly unreasonable” based on a comparison with personal injury lawsuits in which a 20% contingency fee is commonly charged in clear cases where liability is not in issue. Tallcree appealed the Review Officer’s decision to the chambers judge who revoked the Review Officer’s decision because the wrong test was applied (“clearly unreasonable” as opposed to “reasonable”). The finding that the 20% contingency was the minimum percentage for cases taken on a contingency basis was unsupported by evidence or authority as it failed to account for other considerations relevant to the reasonableness of the contingency fee. The chambers judge the asked for further written submissions on what the Applicant’s recoverable fees should be. A further hearing took place before the chambers judge in 2020, but the chambers judge has reserved his decision.
No appeal is allowed to this Court from a decision as to costs only unless permission to appeal has first been obtained. It is doubtful that the decision under appeal is a decision “as to costs only”. It concerns a dispute about the recovery of lawyers’ fees between a lawyer and his or her client, not the payment of costs between parties to litigation. Even if a Review Officer’s review of a lawyer’s charges to his or her client amounts to “a decision as to costs alone”, a review of a contingency fee agreement does not. A review of lawyers’ accounts is a largely discretionary exercise but a review of a contingency fee agreement for reasonableness raises issues of principle about whether (and when) clients who enter into such an agreement and allow the lawyer to fulfil the contingency can decline to pay the contractually-agreed contingency fee.
The policy behind the rule requiring permission to appeal for “a decision as to costs alone” does not apply to an appeal of a review of a contingency fee agreement. No previous decision of this Court has held that such an appeal requires permission to appeal its predecessors. The decision under appeal is not a decision “as to costs alone.” However, the decision under appeal is interlocutory in nature because the chambers judge’s final order on the amount of recoverable fees has not yet been issued. Appeals of interlocutory decisions are generally discouraged. Interlocutory appeals may turn out to be unnecessary and are normally contrary to this Court’s policy against litigation by installment.