Cabinet approves changes to diluted legal services overhaul

Creation of new ‘one-stop-shops’ now subject to public consultation

A key element of the Government’s long-delayed plan to overhaul the legal sector has been diluted in a raft of changes approved by Cabinet. Photograph: Getty

A key element of the Government’s long-delayed plan to overhaul the legal sector has been diluted in a raft of changes approved by Cabinet. Photograph: Getty

 

A key element of the Government’s long-delayed plan to overhaul the legal sector has been diluted in a raft of changes approved by Cabinet.

The proposal, strongly opposed by barristers, to allow lawyers join one-stop shops with accountants and other professionals will now be subject to a six-month period of research followed by six months of public consultation.

Crucially, if that review results in a recommendation that multi-disciplinary practices (MDPs) should not be introduced, the minister for justice of the day will have the power to scrap the idea.

Previous amendments, introduced after a dispute between former minister for justice Alan Shatter and some Cabinet colleagues, stated that one-stop-shops would be introduced after a six-month analysis of how they should be regulated.

The research period will begin when the new Legal Services Regulatory Authority is up and running next year.

The introduction of the Legal Services Regulation Bill, first unveiled in 2011, was a key condition of Ireland’s EU-International Monetary Fund bailout programme.

However, it ran into long delays and resistance from professional bodies representing both solicitors and barristers.

The 40 amendments brought to Cabinet by Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald also allow for a six month consultation process on legal partnerships, where solicitors and barristers will work alongside one another.

In a statement, the Department of Justice said that in recognition of the fact that MDPs were still being rolled out in other jurisdictions, provision would now be made to conduct “detailed research on the likely effects which their introduction may have on competition, on the Irish legal services market and in relation to the legal professions.”

It said the findings of this research on MDPs would then inform the six-month public consultation process already envisaged under the Bill, adding: “The commencement of the provisions governing MDPs will then become a matte for the Minister following these processes, on foot of their outcomes and recommendations.”

Ms Fitzgerald welcomed the sign-off by Cabinet, saying the amendments would allow for public consideration of “key concerns and lessons” on the new business models “while nonetheless holding fast to the Government’s structural reform objectives for the legal services sector.”

She said the Government had adopted a “pragmatic yet prudential” approach to the introduction of the new business models. This would result in structures that would be “better informed, better established, better operated, better regulated, better for consumers and enterprise and better for the economy.”

The Bill’s report stage is due to resume in the Dáil next Tuesday.

The department said it was Ms Fitzgerald’s intention that the Bill be completed so that he new Legal Services Regulatory Authority would become operational in the first half of 2015.