Courting favour at the Bar

Tue, Jun 3, 2014, 01:00

What a difference a few weeks can make. For three years, relations between the Government and the Law Library have seemed strained almost to breaking point. But there was a striking shift in tone last weekend, when Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald attended the Bar Council’s conference and made a point of stressing their openness to engage. What has changed, of course, is that the lawyers have a new interlocutor; Ms Fitzgerald, as the Taoiseach remarked, is “a very different personality” to Alan Shatter, the barristers’ bête noire.

The real effect, if any, of this supposed reset in relations will become apparent within weeks. The long-delayed Legal Services Regulation Bill, the chief source of tension, is due to go to report stage in the Dáil later this month. The Government is planning further amendments, but Mr Kenny and Ms Fitzgerald were careful to hold firm and not concede any substantive points at the weekend.

Attention is focusing on the proposal to allow solicitors, barristers and other professionals to establish “one-stop shops”. The barristers are opposed, and while the Government has deferred their introduction by six months, the proposal remains intact in the latest versions of the Bill. Some of the biggest battles will only begin when the proposed regulatory authority is up and running. Within two years, for example, it must make recommendations on the unification of the solicitors’ and barristers’ professions.

Legal services need a shake-up. Costs may have fallen in recent years, but they remain opaque and complex. The current Bill – mired in recrimination for three years – has in some respects been a lesson on how not to enact a law, but Mr Shatter argued and won on a major principle: the era of self-regulation is over. Yet proper regulation is expensive. It remains for the Government to set out how the Bill’s provisions, taken together, will reduce costs for the client and improve access to justice.

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