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Hiring a lawyer in Japan, and what to do if it all goes wrong

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Special To The Japan Times

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One of our readers wrote in about the negative experience he had with a lawyer in Japan:

Last year I contacted a lawyer at a foreign resident center in Osaka. My wife had signed a divorce paper and forced me from the house.

The lawyer said he would handle the case until the end for ¥100,000. I went to his office and he copied some papers and called my wife.

A year later he quit my case without notice and changed his firm. I went months without any communication from him and he didn’t accomplish anything.

Now my wife is trying to get me to go to arbitration because she says I left and needs help with my daughter.

What should the reader have done in this case?

Unfortunately, not all lawyers handle their cases responsibly. However, our reader also shouldn’t have waited for a matter of months before attempting to contact the lawyer. If a client doesn’t hear from their lawyer about their case for a certain period (for example, more than a month), they should contact the lawyer to find out what is going on.

It’s possible that a lawyer might not contact the client for a while if there are no notable developments in the case, but at the very least, it is important for the client to know what their lawyer is doing for them right now. If the lawyer does not respond to the inquiry satisfactorily, the client had better think about canceling their contract with the lawyer.

What can a client do if they have a disagreement with their lawyer?

When a client wants to cancel a contract with a lawyer, it is possible that the two sides won’t be able to reach an agreement on the terms of the cancelation — particularly on the issue of money.

Every local bar association has a grievance mediation committee (fungi chōtei iinkai) that clients can use to resolve issues involving lawyers. Of course, to prevent any trouble happening in the first place, it’s best to check any retaining contract thoroughly before signing it.

Regulations on remuneration of lawyers issued by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations (Nichibenren) stipulate that when a lawyer accepts legal affairs, he must prepare a retaining agreement that includes matters relating to lawyers’ remuneration. So, if your lawyer did not prepare a contract for you initially, you can request that they do after the fact.

What are the details of a lawyer’s remuneration? What is it based on?

Until 2004, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations set the level of lawyers’ fees. Nowadays, lawyers can decide their fees freely. However, a lot of lawyers still refer to the remuneration levels issued by Nichibenren previously. Checking these figures is one way to find out whether your lawyer’s fee is relatively expensive or not. (The old fees are in Japanese here: (www.miyaben.jp/consultation/pdf/expenses_kijun.pdf)

As for how lawyers are paid, usually they receive an initial sum when they start the case (the retainer fee) and another if they win the case (the success fee). Retainer fees are fixed according to the type of case, whereas the size of the success fee often depends on the result of the case. Other lawyers, however, calculate their fees by the hour. Before you sign a retaining contract, it’s important to check which system of payment applies in your lawyer’s case.

If you are looking for legal advice or want to retain a new lawyer, where should you go?

Local bar associations have legal counseling centers where you can book sessions with lawyers. The average counseling fee is ¥5,400 per 30 minutes.

Some local bar associations provide counseling for free or at cheaper prices. Sometimes free counseling is only available for those who have zero or low incomes. If you are in debt and wish to discuss your financial predicament, local bar associations will also offer you a session for free.

Also, if you would like to talk about a traffic accident, you can get legal advice at the Nichibenren Traffic Accident Consultation Center (Nichibenren Kotsujiko Sodan Senta) for free (for the first five sessions only).

If you meet certain financial conditions, you also can use the civil legal aid system provided by Hoterasu (the Japan Legal Support Center). The system was specifically set up for those who lack the financial resources to pay for a case.

In the event that you do qualify for free legal advice, these are limited to three sessions per case, after which you would have to pay. You also can ask for a loan to retain a lawyer for negotiation, litigation or any other court procedures. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that civil legal aid will only be granted for court proceedings if Hoterasu is convinced there is a possibility of winning the case.

Natsumi Fujii is an attorney with the Foreign nationals and International Service Section at Tokyo Public Law Office, which handles a wide range of cases involving foreigners in the Tokyo area (03-5979-2880; www.t-pblo.jp/fiss) FISS lawyers address readers’ queries once a month. Your questions and other comments: lifelines@japantimes.co.jp