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Trust and controlled money accounts

What is trust money?

Trust money is the money a solicitor holds on behalf of a client or other people in the course of, or in connection with, the provision of legal services. For example, where money is held for the payment of stamp duty during the purchase of property, or received from the proceeds of a court action.

How must a solicitor handle trust money?

The Legal Profession Act 2004 governs how solicitors handle trust money. Under the Act solicitors must:

  • disburse trust money only as directed by the person on whose behalf it is held
  • deposit trust money to a general trust account maintained with an approved authorised deposit-taking institution in New South Wales, such as a bank, building society or credit union
  • keep accurate records of their trust accounts and make them available for inspection by external examiners appointed by the Law Society.

I have paid costs in advance. How is the money managed?

Your solicitor must deposit any costs you have paid in advance into a general trust account. Regulations govern how a solicitor can withdraw money for the payment of a cost. Generally your solicitor can withdraw the money in accordance with the cost agreement and advise you when an amount is to be withdrawn.

If you receive a bill from your solicitor and want to challenge a withdrawal, you have seven days to make your objection known. If you do not lodge an application for a Cost Assessment with the Supreme Court of NSW within 60 days after being given the bill, the solicitor will be able to withdraw the money from the trust account. Also see the document Your right to challenge legal costs.

How are trust accounts checked?

The Law Society’s Trust Account Department has the responsibility for examining records maintained by legal practitioners to ensure they properly account for the money received which is held on behalf of another person.

This involves trust account investigators visiting law practices throughout New South Wales on a regular basis in order to detect and prevent fraudulent practices. The Trust Account Department also assists solicitors in complying with the legislation through the provision of education and assistance.

What can I do if trust money is not handled properly?

If you suffer financial loss due to the dishonest handling of trust money or property by a solicitor you may be able to make a claim for compensation through the Legal Practitioners Fidelity Fund.