Who Pays Legal Fees in Civil Cases?

who pays legal fees in civil cases

In the American legal system, each side is generally responsible for paying their own legal fees, which is known as the American rule[4]. However, there are exceptions to this rule, where a court may award attorney fees to a party if such an award is authorized by agreement between the parties, a statute, or a particular court rule[2].

Fee Shifting Laws and Contractual Provisions

Some contracts have provisions that cover who pays the legal fees if a dispute arises. A contract containing an attorney fee clause may put a signatory at a significant disadvantage in the event a dispute arises[2]. Certain contracts even provide that one party will be responsible for the legal fees of another irrespective of the dispute’s outcome[2].

Additionally, state and federal laws may include provisions that cover the prevailing party’s legal fees in certain cases, such as wage and labor violation lawsuits, anti-discrimination lawsuits, consumer protection claims, landlord-tenant disputes, and environmental protection claims[4].

Public Defender and Pro Bono Services

If you are represented by a free legal service, such as a public defender or a legal aid organization, then you may not have to pay for a lawyer[4]. Legal aid services, legal clinics, non-profits, and some law firms provide legal help without charge, which is known as pro bono service[4].

Recovery of Attorney Fees in Specific Situations

In some situations, a party can recover attorney fees in litigation. For example, courts may award attorney fees to a successful party upon a finding that the losing party had committed willful and egregious conduct, and that the losing party’s malicious acts caused the successful party to incur such legal fees[2]. Plaintiffs are commonly awarded legal fees in successful actions for malicious prosecution and/or false arrest[2].

Furthermore, courts may award attorney fees in class action lawsuits, as well as in cases involving debtor and creditor law, fiduciary litigation, and cases where parties have failed to act in good faith during discovery[2].


While each party is generally responsible for their own legal fees in civil cases, there are exceptions where a court may award attorney fees to a party. These exceptions include fee-shifting laws, contractual provisions, and specific situations where the court deems it appropriate to award attorney fees. It is essential to consult with an attorney to understand the potential for recovering legal fees in your specific case.

Q: Who pays legal fees in civil cases?

A: In civil cases, generally each party is responsible for paying their own legal fees and costs. However, there are some situations where the winning party may be awarded their legal fees and costs by the losing party.

Q: What is civil litigation?

A: Civil litigation refers to the legal process of resolving disputes between individuals, organizations, or entities through the court system.

Q: How are litigation costs determined?

A: Litigation costs include a variety of expenses such as court filing fees, expert witness fees, and costs for obtaining evidence. These costs are considered and may be awarded to the prevailing party based on the rules of civil procedure and the court’s discretion.

Q: What is a frivolous lawsuit?

A: A frivolous lawsuit is a legal claim that lacks any merit or basis in law. These types of lawsuits are generally filed with the intention of harassing or burdening the opposing party.

Q: Are there statutory provisions regarding legal fees in civil cases?

A: Yes, some jurisdictions have statutory provisions that govern the payment of legal fees and costs in civil cases. These provisions may outline when and how fees are to be awarded.

Q: When is a party required to pay the other party’s legal fees?

A: A party may be required to pay the other party’s legal fees if they engage in bad faith conduct during the litigation, such as filing a frivolous lawsuit or refusing to comply with court orders.

Q: What are the fees provisions for personal injury cases?

A: In personal injury cases, the prevailing party may be awarded their legal fees and costs if the court determines that the other party’s conduct was deceptive or in violation of certain laws, such as deceptive trade practices.

Q: Who pays court costs in civil cases?

A: Generally, each party is responsible for paying their own court costs, such as filing fees and other administrative expenses. However, the court may order one party to pay the court costs of the other party in certain situations.

Q: Can a party afford to pay the legal fees of the winning side?

A: If a party is unable to afford to pay the legal fees of the winning party, they may have to make arrangements to satisfy the judgment over time or seek alternative means of payment.

Q: What happens if there is a breach of contract in a civil lawsuit?

A: If there is a breach of contract in a civil lawsuit, the losing side may be required to pay the winning party’s legal fees and costs, depending on the terms and conditions of the contract and applicable laws.


[1] Court Fees in the New York City Civil Court. (2020-05-05). Retrieved from https://www.nycourts.gov/courts/nyc/civil/fees.shtml

[2] The Recovery of Attorney Fees in NY State Litigation. (2023-09-22). Nassau County Bar Association. Retrieved from https://www.nassaubar.org/articles/the-recovery-of-attorney-fees-in-ny-state-litigation/

[3] PART 130. Costs And Sanctions. (2023-09-22). NYCOURTS.GOV – Unified Court System. Retrieved from https://ww2.nycourts.gov/rules/chiefadmin/130.shtml

[4] Can I Sue for Legal Fees? (2022-06-17). FindLaw. Retrieved from https://www.findlaw.com/litigation/filing-a-lawsuit/can-i-sue-for-legal-fees-.html

[5] When Can a Party Recover Attorneys’ Fees in Litigation? (2023-09-27). Retrieved from https://morgdevo.com/when-can-a-party-recover-attorneys-fees-in-litigation/

[6] Divorce Attorney Fees – Expert Fees. (2023-09-22). New York City Bar Association. Retrieved from https://www.nycbar.org/get-legal-help/article/family-law/divorce/attorneys-fees-and-expert-fees/