Bar on defensive


Eighteen months since the Legal Services Bill passed its second stage and yet it has still not gone through the Oireachtas. It would seem that legislative gridlock is as much in need of retuning and modernisation as Minister for Justice Alan Shatter suggests the legal profession is. But when the Minister took amendments to Cabinet on Tuesday it also became clear that the Bill, an important promise to the troika, still faces political hurdles, particularly on the part of the Bar and its eloquent advocate Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore.

Having accepted both the Bill’s extensive reform of the legal costs regime – its primary purpose – and its provision for independent regulation of the profession, the Bar Council has conducted a rearguard campaign against its “modernising” promotion of the concept of “Multi-Disciplinary Practice”, proposals that would allow barristers, solicitors and professionals like accountants to work together in firms.

The idea would mean the erosion of barristers’ traditional “lone trader” status, and, the council warns, threaten the historic independence of the bar by creating conflicts of interest within offices. That fear is reflected the continued opposition of the American Bar Association to such changes in the wake of the Enron scandal, and the reality that 23 EU states also prohibit such practices. The bar also warns that access to the fullest range of the expertise of the Bar for those of more limited means or from small legal practices is likely to be restricted because many top barristers will be tied up in new partnerships. Such partnerships are also likely to further restrict recruitment to the bar to those with money or contacts.

Such arguments may easily be dismissed as self-serving and alarmist on the part of an interest group – a recent conference was told that similar UK reforms have had far less dramatic effects than feared – but there are good reasons for concern here, and the case that such partnerships would promote competition and drive down costs is weak. The Government should give its proposals a second thought.