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Bar fee arbitration program becomes more user friendly.

An overhaul of the Bar's free fee arbitration program that will screen cases and seek to bring in more volunteer arbitrators has been approved by the Bar Board of Governors.

Board member Richard Tanner, who chaired a Program Evaluation Committee subcommittee that reviewed the program, said it needs more publicity so both lawyers and clients know about it, and needs more lawyers to volunteer as arbitrators.

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The board unanimously approved the PEC's proposed changes at its May 29 meeting in Key West.

Tanner said the fee arbitration program is not only a valuable public service, but a service for lawyers because it can prevent spurious attacks on the profession when disputes arise about fees.

"We have an informal free service provided by The Florida Bar with respect to fee arbitrations when clients and attorneys get into a disagreement about a fair and reasonable value of the services rendered," he said. "It needs to be invigorated a little bit."

The program needs to attract more arbitrators, both lawyer volunteers and from arbitrator organizations, to handle cases, and needs more publicity so more clients and lawyers are willing to use the service, he said. It should be a natural for lawyers, Tanner added, since arbitration clauses are standard in many of their fee contracts.

Eligibility requirements for arbitrators can be found in Rule VII in Chapter 14 of the Rules Reguling The Florida Bar.

Other recommendations include raising the amount of the dispute necessary to require a three-member arbitration panel from $15,000 to $75,000, making greater use of a rule provision to allow a case to be dismissed if it is too complex for the Bar program, and seeing if eligible arbitration association members are willing to handle a few cases, pro bono, each year. The latter could be helpful in areas of the state with a large number of cases but few available arbitrators.

One committee proposal has already been implemented by Legal Division Director John Berry, Tanner said: by having the Attorney Consumer Assistance Program, which now reviews all grievance complaints and grievance mediation matters, also screen fee arbitration requests. ACAP staffers can review the case for appropriateness and provide important information about the system for clients.

The PEC is also recommending, he said, that arbitration participants and arbitrators be surveyed between now and the end of the year so the board at its January 2010 meeting can receive a report on how the changes are working.

In addition, the Bar should set up a training program for arbitrators and investigate incentives for volunteer arbitrators, including increased CLE credit and perhaps reimbursement for travel expenses, Tanner said.

The subcommittee looked at and rejected, for now, setting a fee to use the system. Tanner said the panel thought a fee might weed out meritless claims, but decided instead to see how the ACAP screening works out.

He noted the system requires that a dispute be heard within 45 days of being assigned to an arbitrator. The written award should be issued within 10 days of the date the arbitration was held.

"It's a fairly expeditious public service," he said.

The board unanimously approved the recommendations.

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Publication:Florida Bar News
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Jun 15, 2009
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