A reluctant transformation


THE INTERNATIONAL Bar Association could scarcely have chosen a more interesting location for its annual conference than Dublin at this time. The visitors find their Irish legal hosts undergoing a very reluctant transformation. Reform is being imposed on the legal profession; solicitors and barristers. Nolumus mutari – We shall not be changed – has been the motto of judges and barristers at King’s Inns since the late 18th century. And, for much of the past two centuries, they have neither greatly changed their practices, nor much wanted to be changed themselves. Short law terms and long vacations remain a largely unaltered feature of life in the Irish law courts.

Instead, the EU and the IMF, and a determined Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, who is intent on reforming the legal profession, have become agents of change. Reform of the lawyers, and a move away from self-regulation, has become a legal and political imperative, with a deadline set for its achievement under the terms of the bailout agreement. EU/IMF insistence on the removal of restrictions to trade and competition in sheltered sectors of the domestic economy – such as the legal profession – is one small part of the price paid to secure €67 billion in financial support.

Until the EU/IMF’s arrival in 2010, reform of the legal profession was for decades much discussed, often promised, but rarely advanced to the point of decision by government. In recent years, however, pressure for change has intensified. This year the National Competitiveness Council found legal costs were 12 per cent higher than in 2006, despite the deep economic recession: a performance matched by few other professions. Irish legal costs are among the most expensive in the developed world, a World Bank survey has suggested.

Nevertheless, not all solicitors and barristers have benefited equally from high legal fees in what has become an overcrowded profession where the financial gains have been unequally distributed. Many solicitors are unemployed or have little work and low incomes, while a good number have emigrated; likewise, many barristers struggle to survive in a highly competitive workplace. A common feature of the two branches of the legal profession has been the dominance of both by relatively few: by the small number of very large legal firms that capture most of the State’s legal business, and by a limited number of top barristers who can command high fees for their services.

For the public, the EU/IMF changes proposed – many of which will be implemented by the Legal Services Regulation Bill under consideration by the Dáil – will provide an independent regulator; one who will regulate the profession in the public interest, and make it more accountable. That should help produce a better deal for the public as taxpayers, via a lower cost to the State for its huge legal services bill. And it should also help ensure that legal fee excesses – like those enjoyed by three members of the Moriarty tribunal, who between them earned €25 million for their work over 14 years – are not repeated.

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