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Newsletters 2002 > December 2002

Contingency Fees for Lawyers

In McIntyre v. Ont. Atty. Gen. the Court of Appeal held that contingency fees are not per se in contravention of the Champerty Act. The validity of a contingency fee arrangement is to be determined by reasonableness, fairness and proper motive.

Here are the relevant excerpts of the decision penned by O'Connor J.:

I have concluded in subsection (d) above that contingency fee agreements do not per se contravene the Champerty Act. However, in my view, contingency fee agreements that provide for the payment of fees that are unreasonable or unfair are agreements that have an improper motive and come within the prohibition in the Act. Because it is premature to address the issue of the reasonableness and fairness of the proposed agreement, it is my respectful view that the applications judge should not have granted the declaration sought by the respondent.

[81] I want to address three other matters that were touched on during the arguments of counsel. The first relates to the criteria that should be used in assessing the reasonableness and fairness of fees in a contingency fee agreement. Contingency fee agreements have been expressly permitted by statute in many jurisdictions. Often, the authorizing legislation has also provided for a regulatory regime that addresses the manner in which the propriety of contingency fees may be determined. See for example, the Class Proceedings Act, s. 33(1).

[82] Ontario, of course, does not have legislation specifically directed at regulating non-class action contingency fee agreements. Until such legislation is passed, the regime in the Solicitors Act for assessing lawyers' accounts will apply. When assessing a contingency fee arrangement, the courts should start by looking at the usual factors that are considered
in addressing the appropriateness of lawyer-client accounts. See Cohen v. Kealey & Blaney (1985), 10 O.A.C. 344 at 346 (C.A.).

[83] In addition, I see no reason why courts should not also consider compensation to a lawyer for the risk assumed in acting without the guarantee of payment. This is, of course, where the discussion becomes controversial. Some argue that allowing a lawyer to be compensated for the risk assumed increases the concerns about the abuses that historically the law of champerty aimed to prevent. However, I do not think that that needs to be the case. The emphasis here should be on the reasonableness and fairness of the compensation to the lawyer for assuming the risk. Many jurisdictions that have expressly approved contingency fee agreements have set out the criteria for addressing the amount of compensation that will be permitted. Indeed, Ontario has done so in the Class Proceedings Act. In these instances, one element giving rise to compensation is often the acceptance of risk and an assessment of the level of risk involved.

[84] That said, I want to sound a note of caution about the potential for unreasonably large contingency fees. It is critical that contingency fee agreements be regulated and that the amount of fees be properly controlled. Courts should be concerned that excessive fee
arrangements may encourage the types of abuses that historically underlay the common law prohibition against contingency fee agreements and that they can create the unfortunate public perception that litigation is being conducted more for the benefit of lawyers than for their clients. Fairness to clients must always be a paramount consideration.

[85] Notwithstanding my conclusion that contingency fee agreements should no longer be absolutely prohibited at common law, I urge the government of Ontario to accept the advise that it has been given for many years to enact legislation permitting and regulating contingency fee agreements in a comprehensive and co-ordinated manner. There are obvious advantages to having a regulatory scheme that is clearly and specifically addressed in a single legislative enactment. There is no reason why Ontario, like all the other jurisdictions in Canada, should not enact such a scheme. Again, I wish to make clear that this comment is not intended to apply to family law matters, where different factors apply.

[86] The second matter I wish to briefly address is the effect of the Solicitors Act of Ontario on the disposition of this appeal. I start by noting that the underlying application does not raise the question whether the proposed agreement breaches the Solicitors Act and, strictly speaking, it is not necessary to comment on the effect of that Act on the issues
raised in this case. However, for completeness, I think a few comments are warranted.

[87] Section 28 of the Solicitors Act reads as follows:

28. Nothing in sections 16 to 33 gives validity to a purchase by a solicitor of the interest or any part of the interest of his or her client in any action or other contentious proceeding to be brought or maintained, or gives validity to an agreement by which a solicitor retained or employed to prosecute an action or proceeding stipulates for payment only in the event
of success in the action or proceeding, or where the amount to be paid to him or her is a percentage of the amount or value of the property recovered or preserved or otherwise determinable by such amount or value or dependent upon the result of the action or proceeding.



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