Legal reform: Professions to retain key powers in plan

Legal Services Regulation Bill resisted by professions

Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald: will bring a memorandum to Cabinet on Tuesday. Photograph: Dara MacDónaill/The Irish Times

Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald: will bring a memorandum to Cabinet on Tuesday. Photograph: Dara MacDónaill/The Irish Times

 

The representative bodies for barristers and solicitors will retain many of their major powers as the Government makes a late push to proceed with a long-delayed overhaul of the legal professions by the end of the year.

Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald will bring a memorandum to Cabinet on Tuesday in which she seeks approval for amendments to the Legal Services Regulation Bill, the draft law to revamp the professions which had encountered deep resistance from the Bar Council and the Law Society.

Delay

The Bill was introduced in October 2011 by the Minister’s predecessor, Alan Shatter, but its passage through the Oireachtas was beset with delay as opponents within the legal professions lobbied against the changes.

The amendments Ms Fitzgerald presents today include an option for solicitors’ firms and legal partnerships to operate with the benefit of limited liability for the first time, although such businesses will face a stronger form of oversight by a new Legal Services Regulatory Authority.

The benefits of limited liability, which curtails a practice’s exposure to business losses, will not be extended to any other profession.

Seven months after it was passed by the Dáil, the legislation is expected to be enacted by Christmas.

The ultimate oversight of barristers and solicitors will pass to the Legal Services Regulatory Authority when the law clears the Oireachtas but the Bar Council and the Law Society have won significant concessions.

In the new scheme, for example, the Bar Council will no longer be compelled to accept into its membership barristers who practise as employees or within new business models such as legal partnerships, multi-disciplinary practices or limited liability partnerships.

This means the Bar Council will retain the power to refuse permission for barristers working in new structures to join the Law Library.

However, the Minister for Justice will have the right to recognise professional bodies other than the Bar Council and the Law Society.

Barristers who do not work as sole practitioners will be free to form their own new body in anticipation of recognition by the Minister.

At the same time, the new law will demand that an international research project be undertaken on multi-disciplinary practices before they can be introduced in the Irish legal system.

Complaints

The Law Society will retain financial and accounting oversight of solicitors and the €80 million Solicitors’ Compensation Fund. This means any complaints made to the Legal Services Regulatory Authority in relation to alleged fraud or dishonesty will be referred to the Law Society.

The quid pro quo for the change is that the Law Society itself will be subject to oversight by the Legal Services Regulatory Authority.

However, the pre-approval of the new authority will not be required for the Law Society to take any enforcement actions against any solicitors for any financial misconduct.

At the same time, the society’s complaints and client regulations committee functions will pass to the new authority

In the new scheme, the society will retain its regulation of practice committee functions, but an officer of the authority will have a presence on it.The new authority will also have the power to approve regulations made by the Law Societyy.