Barristers have seen their fees for public work fall by as much as 60 per cent since 2008, the Bar Council has said.
This “severe reduction” in fees has played a major role in the increase in the numbers leaving the profession, it added.
Competition for work between barristers is a “significant feature of the Irish system” and leads to “constant downward pressure on legal costs, which is intense”, according to the Bar Council.
The points were made in a submission to a United Nations committee in Geneva which is to hear a case on Friday in which Ireland is contesting a claim that people who go to court over alleged infringements of environmental law face the threat of prohibitive legal costs.
The case is the first against Ireland under the Aarhus Convention, which Ireland ratified in 2012 and guarantees access to justice in environmental matters that is not "prohibitively expensive".
Kieran Fitzpatrick, from Cummer, Co Galway, and representatives of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, are to address the convention's compliance committee, which will rule on whether Ireland is in compliance with it.
Mr Fitzpatrick, who is studying for a master’s degree in public law at NUI Galway, has alleged that while Ireland introduced a special procedure to ensure people would not have to bear the other side’s costs, there was a “Catch 22” as a person had to risk “huge adverse legal costs” in making an application to the courts for a declaration that the safeguard applied to the case the applicant wanted to make.
"I contend that Ireland has not taken sufficient efforts to insure that the legal fees of lawyers involved in litigation are not prohibitively expensive," he said in his submission, which is available on the website, www.unece.org.
In response the Department of the Environment said Mr Fitzpatrick’s claims were misconceived and unfounded.
It said he was effectively stating people who believed their proceedings to be environmental, irrespective as to whether they were correct or not, should enjoy a right to engage lawyers and not be exposed to any risk of an award of costs against them.
It argued Ireland’s response to the convention ensured that costs awards for people who took qualifying cases were not such that they “render access to justice prohibitively expensive”. It said Irish applicants can take environmental cases without legal representation and “very rarely” have to pay the other side’s costs.
It said the “no foal, no fee” arrangement was an “integral part of the Irish legal system” as was the practice of “pro bono” work.