Greek lawyers under siege

Mon, May 28, 2012, 01:00

THE GREEK legal profession is being hit by a tidal wave of enforced change in an extremely short period of time. The mood among the leaders of the profession is a mixture of anger, bewilderment and something close to despair. The profession has been on strike, on and off, for months.

Although Greece and Ireland are both “Troika countries”, their approach to and experience of dealing with the Troika has been very different. Ireland’s economic situation is very bad – but Greece is much, much worse. Likewise, the difference in culture and development between the legal professions in the two countries is vast.

There are 45,000 lawyers in Greece and each is a member of one of the 63 individual local Bars. In ways, these Bars seem to operate like the separate and rival “city states” of Greek antiquity.

There are, in fact, a number of major differences between the legal professions in Ireland and Greece. Up to relatively recently (until pressure from Troika intervention), a lawyer from one of Greece’s 63 Bars could not practise in any Bar outside his or her own. Lawyers’ practices had been confined to their own towns or districts. No such restriction ever existed in Ireland.

Again, until recently in Greece there was an almost complete ban on lawyer advertising – first allowed in Ireland in the 1980s. Also, minimum fee tariffs operated by lawyers, prohibited as anti-competitive in Ireland for decades, have been abolished in Greece only recently. There are almost no “law firms”, in that the overwhelming majority of Greek lawyers are sole practitioners.

At a recent law conference in Thessaloniki, there was an acknowledgement by some speakers that corruption in the Greek justice system was a problem by contrast with most other EU Member States.

But the biggest, most immediate and most shocking change being imposed by the Troika is the forced introduction of VAT on legal services. This is being resolutely opposed by the profession on the grounds that it would fundamentally undermine access to justice. VAT on legal services was introduced in Ireland in 1981.

Insofar as I could offer advice to Greek colleagues, based on our experience in Ireland, it is that they should not seek to oppose all of the change but, on the contrary, should constructively seek to shape the change. They should distinguish between what are the core values of the legal profession and the rule of law and what is not. Many international speakers echoed this theme at the Thessaloniki conference.

I am not sure how much influence we had. We subsequently learned that, at a closed meeting of the Greek Bar presidents the day after the conference, following a major debate, the decision was taken that the legal profession throughout Greece should go on indefinite strike.

Ken Murphy is Director General of the Law Society of Ireland and President of the International Institute of Law Association

Chief Executives. He was one of the guest speakers at a conference in Thessaloniki in March on ‘Troika – Justice and the Legal Profession under siege’.