Ireland has hundreds more barristers than is appropriate for its population size and many say they are suffering financially, according to the first ever independent strategic review of the profession here.
Carried out by consultants EY in 2021 for The Bar of Ireland (TBOI), the review found barristers face serious challenges, including fees of as little as €25 a day in District Court criminal legal aid cases, problems with getting fees paid by solicitors and an increasingly competitive market for legal services.
The unbalanced allocation of available work contributes to the high attrition rate of junior members of the Law Library, it noted, with the attrition rate rising rapidly after five years’ service. After 10 years, 53 per cent have quit.
There are 2,852 barristers on the State’s roll, or 45 per 100,000 people, with other countries of a similar size having on average just 25 barristers per 100,000 people. The Law Library has 2,124 members, all of whom are independent sole traders in line with its business model. A conservative appropriate number is 1,515, the EY report found.
Key stakeholders, including State bodies and the public, have a generally positive attitude to barristers, the report said. A survey for the report found nearly three in four people believe it is essential to have a barrister to represent their interests in a court and that barristers play an important role in defending rights and pursuing social justice. However, half of those surveyed for the report believed barristers “are only for people with lots of money”.
Commissioned by the council of the TBOI to help guide a strategy for the future of the profession, the report was submitted to the council last July. Working groups were then established to examine and consult before distribution to members this week and Friday’s publication.
The council has endorsed most of the review’s 51 recommendations, many relating to promoting diversity and inclusion, education, training and marketing and maximising the potential of TBOI’s €53.5 million property portfolio for the benefit of members.
Many of the measures have already been, or are in the process of being, implemented. However, the council disagrees with a core recommendation to permit barristers — senior and junior counsel and devils (trainees) — to combine to form non-commercial groupings called meitheals.
Of the 890 Law Library barristers who participated in a survey, most (62 per cent) regarded the current sole trader model as fit for purpose. Just over half favoured a UK-style chambers model, or a legal partnership option (partnerships of solicitors and barristers to be provided for under legislation) in the future. The council has said neither of the latter two models are consistent with the independent referral bar, but that discussions concerning the business model will continue.
Most barristers, 78 per cent, believe their role has become more difficult over the last three years, with 72 per cent saying their fees had been reduced and 64 per cent relying significantly on poorly-paid legal aid schemes. Sixty-eight per cent said they were suffering financially due to rising operational costs. Most — 83 per cent — disagreed with unification of the barristers and solicitors’ professions and a majority were positive about the role of the Legal Services Regulatory Authority (LSRA).
Some €1.2 million is outstanding in unpaid fees to barristers with the average fees owed to Law Library members in 2020 standing at €27,000. While the average annual salary for a legal sector employee in 2019 was €82,000, a survey by the council in 2020 found that 75 per cent of junior counsel earned about €40,000.
The average age of Law Library members is 46, while it is 45 for solicitors. Senior counsel make up 17 per cent of the Law Library but, while 37 per cent of members are female, women account for just 18 per cent of senior counsel.
EY identified TBOI’s strengths as including a market dominant position, collegiality among members, a perception that barristers are leaders in their field, evolving digital skills, and valuable city-centre properties offering offices and seats for members, as well as financial support for member services.
Weaknesses included the membership attrition rate over seven years of 164 members a year (-1.1 per cent annually) despite economic growth; inequitable briefing practices; a perception of lack of diversity, being out of touch with the public and of “opaque” barristers’ fee structure; problems in fee collection and management; and an over-reliance on solicitors for work under the existing referral system.
Opportunities included a growing demand for legal services here, the potential for Ireland to provide an alternative forum for European legal services post Brexit and maximising the potential of TBOI’s specialist bar associations and for more arbitration and mediation services. Identified threats included solicitor firms being in a better position to offer a defined career path to top level graduates, other modes of working such as legal partnerships and the full impact of the LSRA on the practice of barristers.