What is a legal opinion worth?
If the advice you seek is that of attorney Jagdeo Singh, then one hour of his time costs $2,500.
Those hours can add up quickly to more than a million dollars.
On May 24, 2012, Singh submitted six invoices to the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Transport for providing six legal opinions at a cumulative cost of $1.82 million, representing a total of 728 hours at the rate of $2,500 an hour.
Singh, the lawyer on record for the wife of Attorney General Anand Ramlogan, has also represented the State on behalf of the Ministry of Finance at the CLICO Commission of Enquiry and is representing the State at the Commission of Enquiry into the 1990 attempted coup. During that time, he also did legal work for several State enterprises under the Ministry of Transport.
In one matter involving the provision of legal advice to the Traffic Commissioner, Singh invoiced the client for $125,000.
Some of the particulars of the billing were for five hours spent to “receive and peruse instructions”, four hours for “taking instructions” and four hours for “general care and conduct”.
For advice on traffic regulations, some of the particulars he claimed were ten hours for “receiving and pursuing documents”, 25 hours on “research on the deficiencies of the Act”, 112 hours on “research on the law of the power of the Ministry of Transport”, ten hours to take instructions, 45 hours to prepare the opinion and eight hours on general care and conduct.
For that advice, he claimed to have worked 138 hours for a sum of $345,000.
The invoices prompted the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Transport, Verna Johnson, to write to her counterpart in the Ministry of the Attorney General for a recommendation for the payment of the legal fees.
Johnson also sought advice on invoices submitted by attorney and former deputy chairman of Caribbean New Media Group (CNMG) Liana Ramsahai.
Ramsahai submitted two invoices for two opinions to the ministry, in the same format as Singh’s, under the same address listed by Singh for a cumulative value of $606,000.
She had billed the ministry for a total of 404 hours at $1,500 an hour.
Johnson’s memo, dated October 10, 2012, noted that the ministry had retained the services of attorneys for legal opinions for which it had received multiple invoices.
“The opinion of the Solicitor General (SG) is humbly sought in guiding the Ministry as to the amount of fees to be paid for the various opinions provided,” Johnson wrote.
She listed the six opinions submitted by Jagdeo Singh, the two submitted by Ramsahai, two opinions from attorney Avory Sinanan SC and two opinions from Lesley-Ann Lucky Samaroo.
Solicitor General Eleanor Donaldson-Honeywell told the Sunday Express last Friday that while she recollected the request, she was bound by the requirements of legal professional privilege regarding disclosure of any advice and could therefore not comment.
Contacted last Friday, legal adviser to the Ministry of Transport, Gobin Harrypersad, said that as far as he was aware, the invoices had been paid but directed further questions to the accounts department of the ministry.
The Sunday Express obtained copies of the opinions as well as the invoices and sought the advice of two Senior Counsels (SC) as well as former justice minister Herbert Volney, a retired judge, on the sums invoiced and if the ministry would have got value for money on the opinions.
Shown one of the opinions related to the Central Tenders Board, Volney estimated its value at no more than $75,000.
For that opinion, Singh had invoiced 159 hours of work at $2,500 per hour to arrive at a total of $375,000.
The Senior Counsels both queried aspects of the opinions, including:
1. The invoices were drawn up without making provision for payment to the Inland Revenue for Value Added Tax (VAT).
According to the VAT Act, individuals or businesses that sell goods or services worth $200,000 or more over a twelve-month period must register for VAT. Individuals and businesses must also register if they forecast sales of $200,000 or more in a twelve-month period.
2. Singh had based his fees on a Practice Guide to the Assessment of Costs given by then acting Chief Justice Roger Hamel-Smith on December 20, 2007 in respect of the assessment of costs for litigation. The SCs said the invoices showed no evidence of litigation being involved in any of the six matters, only advice. For this reason, they suggested that the appropriate basis for charging for work might have been the Legal Profession Act.
3. The hourly rate for court work litigation had been applied in the six matters, none of which seemed to involve litigation.
In their opinion, none of the matters appeared to be unusually “novel or complex”, although the fees charged seemed to be higher than those charged by many SCs for court work litigation.
It was further noted that the number of hours billed for on a single day would suggest that Singh, who was at the time involved in the CLICO Commission of Enquiry, would have had to have no other client for the period of over 100 days which, with a 20-day work month, would have amounted to five months.
4. Singh’s itemised requests for payment for periods amounting to 13 hours of work under the headings of “receiving and perusing instructions” and “receiving and perusing files from Transport Board”, seemed exceptionally lengthy for such tasks.
In each of the six opinions, the items “receiving and perusing instructions” and “receiving and perusing files” were separately invoiced for a total of 57 hours which, at Singh’s hourly rate, amounted to roughly $117,500 for receiving and reading the six files or letters of instructions.
The Sunday Express understands that the more usual practice is for counsel to charge one fee payable for “settling and engrossing” the opinion.
In this case, the norm for an opinion is said to be around $50,000.
Asked by the Sunday Express to explain the aspects of his billing, Singh wanted to know why his invoices were being singled out.
“At the end of the day, those invoices went to the Attorney General and the AG approved them for quantum and in some instances asked for reductions which were duly complied with. If he found they were excessive, then that would have been the case. But you know they were approved by the AG, by the AG’s department, and nobody could suggest there was any underhand transaction,” said Singh.
Questioned if he might have benefitted financially from State briefs because of any relationship with the Government, he said:
“No, I benefitted because I am a lawyer not because of any relationship. Did Douglas Mendes benefit financially to the tune of millions and millions of dollars? Did Kerwin Garcia, Colin Kangaloo, Michael Quamina, Stuart Young, Reginald Armour, Ian Benjamin? You want me to continue to call names Asha? Did they all benefit from their relationship with the PNM? So why am I being singled out?”
He confirmed that he has been given work in three State enterprises under the Ministry of Transport when Devant Maharaj was minister and there had been no issue with his fees.
In 2011, Singh earned close to $2 million for work done at the Public Transport Service Corporation (PTSC), which also falls under the Ministry of Transport.
He handled 18 matters for the PTSC and in five of those matters he was only required to submit an opinion.
In September 2011, Maharaj also gave instructions to the Port Authority (PATT), documented in board minutes, for Singh and Fortis Chambers to be retained to provide legal services.
Singh was also retained to provide legal services for the Airports Authority (AATT).
Singh said when Maharaj was Minister of Transport, there was no functioning legal department and that he gave advice when required.
He added that “when Chandresh (Sharma) became Minister, I haven’t been paid.”
When the Sunday Express sought clarification on whether the ministry was owing him money, Singh said yes, adding: “I just haven’t bothered with it.”
On why his bills did not take include VAT, he said: “I wasn’t registered for VAT at that time when I did that work. I became registered for VAT in 2012.
If you not registered for VAT you cannot charge VAT. If you register, you have to charge and then pay it over.”
Singh’s invoices are dated May 24, 2012. According to Section 36 (4) of the Act a failure to comply with the provisions of the section is an offence. None of the invoices viewed by the Sunday Express makes provision for the amount of VAT payable. The cumulative value of the invoices is well in excess of the $200,000 threshold required for the payment of VAT.
Asked if he was aware that there was a concern with the invoices, he responded: “I know that letter was sent and I eventually waited.”
He defended his $2,500 an hour fee saying it applied to both contentious and non-contentious work.
“I have been in practice for over 20 years.”
Regarding the number of hours billed, Singh said: “Those are things you have to work on. You have to do research and thing. You just can’t do things in five or two hours.”
Attorney Liana Ramsahai told the Sunday Express that she had not been paid for her work by the Ministry of Transport.
Former Transport Minister Devant Maharaj told the Sunday Express that he was not responsible for invoices which go through the Permanent Secretary who is the ministry’s accounting officer.
The Sunday Express understands that it was the AG who handled the issue of the invoices when it was brought to his ministry’s attention.
Contacted for comment yesterday, Ramlogan said: “If a Permanent Secretary seeks guidance on any legal matters from my ministry, it would normally come to the office of the Solicitor General. I don’t recall the facts of this matter. However, it is not unusual for me to reduce or negotiate a discount on legal fees in the public interest after consultation with the SG. The ministry is thereafter free to accept our advice and be guided accordingly.”