Who Pays My Attorney Fees?
A man came into my office a few days ago and asked me this question: “My neighbor borrowed 200 dollars from me and won’t pay me back. I want to file a lawsuit against him.” At that point, I quoted him a fee for my services and he replied, “I’ll just let him pay your bill.” So, who pays this man’s attorney fees and court costs?
The majority of the time, each individual party to a lawsuit is responsible for paying his or her own attorney fees, many times regardless of who wins the lawsuit. This comes as a shock to many people who believe that the losing party should pay the winning party’s fees and costs. Contrary to this popular belief, there are basically only two exceptions to the general rule that everyone pays their own costs. First, if there is a written agreement, or a contract, between the parties that discusses who pays the costs of a lawsuit, the court will assign these fees according to the parties prior agreement. For this exception to apply there must be a valid written agreement that clearly discusses who pays attorney fees and under what circumstances those fees are to be paid. Second, there are a few laws within the Alabama Code that provide for the losing party of certain types of lawsuits to pay the wining party’s attorney fees. These code provisions, however, are very specific and do not cover most lawsuits. Lawsuits regarding unpaid money, for example, are generally not covered.
In very rare situations, the judge can order a party to pay another’s attorney fees and court costs. Although nearly every complaint asks that the judge to order the other party to pay for all the costs, I have personally never seen this happen. I always advise people that although he or she can ask for this kind of relief, don’t expect to get it.
Because each party largely has to pay his or her own attorney fees and costs, sometimes, it is just not economical to hire an attorney. In fact, the gentleman in the question above would spend more on attorney fees and court costs than what he is owed. In these situations, it is sometimes better to file what is called a “small claims” action. If what you are owed is less than $3,000.00, most of the time you can file this type of action in small claims court. Small claims court is very much like the “Judge Judy” or “People’s Court” television shows where two parties stand before the judge and plead their case without lawyers. You can find out more information about small claims court from the Circuit Clerk’s Office at the Courthouse.
As always, this column is intended for general information purposes only. It is not intended, nor should it be construed as personal legal advice. The answers to most legal problems rely on the specific facts of your situation; therefore, it is very important that you personally see a lawyer when these situations arise.