Government to make last-minute changes to contentious legal reform Bill

Taoiseach signals better co-operation with Bar Council in wake of Shatter’s resignation

 Chairman of the Bar of Ireland David Nolan SC and Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the Bar of Ireland Conference in Westport at  the weekend. Photograph: Conor McKeown

Chairman of the Bar of Ireland David Nolan SC and Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the Bar of Ireland Conference in Westport at the weekend. Photograph: Conor McKeown

 

Taoiseach Enda Kenny struck a conciliatory tone with barristers over contentious legal reforms, pledging to engage with them as late changes to the long-delayed Bill to overhaul the profession are prepared.

Addressing the Bar Council’s annual conference, in Westport, at the weekend, Mr Kenny said new Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald would be “a very different personality to the previous minister”. Ms Fitzgerald’s predecessor, Alan Shatter, had a strained relationship with the barristers’ representative group over the past three years.

Mr Kenny said he was “happy to engage” with the Bar Council on the Government’s plans, adding: “I think we can proceed ahead on that basis.”

Separately, the Department of Justice told The Irish Times it had been in discussions with “key stakeholders” and would bring forward further amendments to the Legal Services Regulation Bill in the coming weeks.

Mr Kenny did not refer to any specific provisions in the Bill, parts of which barristers oppose, but said he and Ms Fitzgerald were committed to new structures for the legal profession. “It’s always difficult to accept change, to adjust to change, to adjust to different structures,” he told the 200-strong gathering.

Ms Fitzgerald spoke to representatives of the Bar Council on Friday. Its chairman, David Nolan, said the Minister had contacted the Bar Council within a week of her appointment and they had already had positive and lengthy discussions. The council says Mr Shatter rebuffed numerous requests for formal meetings.

Mr Nolan said that after a lengthy recent meeting with Ms Fitzgerald, “I came away saying, ‘I am speaking to someone who understands what it is to be an independent referral bar.’”

One of the key disputes between the Bar Council and Mr Shatter was over a proposal to introduce multidisciplinary practices, or one-stop shops, where solicitors and barristers could establish businesses alongside accountants and other professionals.

That proposal remains in the latest draft of the Bill, but the Government has added a provision which allows the new practices to be set up only after a six-month consultation – led by the proposed new regulator for the profession – on how they should operate.

Chairing a session on the future of the bar, Attorney General Máire Whelan told the audience it was important for the bar to “engage in a strategic way”. She said the high fees earned by barristers at tribunals had a “poisonous, noxious” influence on public understanding of what barristers did, but that the public interest served by barristers superseded all others.

The Department said detailed work on the Bill was continuing. The legislation, first published in 2011 but stalled for three years, is due to go to report stage in the Oireachtas later this month, with the “overall objective” of the new Legal Services Regulatory Authority becoming operational in 2015.

Key stakeholders

In a signal that more changes will be made, the department said Ms Fitzgerald and her officials had been “actively engaged in consultation with key stakeholders”: “The Ministers will be taking account of the views received in bringing forward further amendments to the Bill for report stage.”