McDowell commits to role of legal ombudsman


Minister for Justice Michael McDowell has given the first definite commitment to establish a legal ombudsman office to oversee the legal profession, writes Fiona Gartland.

Such a move would be strongly resisted by the Law Society, which represents solicitors and oversees the investigation of complaints against its members.

In a letter to a former Progressive Democrats councillor and current chairman of the Dún Laoghaire branch of the party Victor Boyhan, Mr McDowell said: "You will be glad to know that I have decided to make provision for the establishment of a legal ombudsman. I will do so in the very near future."

The letter, dated June 28th, is on notepaper from Mr McDowell's Dublin South East constituency office. When contacted yesterday, a spokesman for the Department of Justice would not comment on the letter other than to say the Minister had asked his officials to "develop the idea of setting up a legal services ombudsman, which is a concept he favours".

The spokesman said Mr McDowell established a group to identify ways of reducing legal costs last September under the chairmanship of Paul Haran.

"As soon as he receives that report [expected in late autumn] he will be considering how best to proceed." It is understood that legislation will be required to establish a legal ombudsman office.

The Competition Authority, in its preliminary report on the legal profession released last February, recommended that a legal services commission be established with an independent regulatory system.

The move has been pushed by the Progressive Democrats. The party committed itself to the establishment of a legal ombudsman's office in its last general election manifesto. However, it wasn't included in the Programme for Government.

There has been opposition to such a move in the past from the legal profession. The Law Society has pointed out that the committee within its organisation that deals with disciplinary matters and regulation is distinct from those that deal with representation; it has lay representation and, ultimately, is overseen by the High Court.

Mr Boyhan yesterday welcomed the Minister's decision. "The present system of investigating and disciplining solicitors no longer commands complete public confidence," he said.

"There is a public perception that some members of the legal profession are considered to be untouchable and remain immune from the law. Few people have the financial resources to take an action in the courts if they have a grievance, not to mention the difficulty of finding a lawyer prepared to act against a member of their own profession," he added

The clear commitment in the letter to Mr Boyhan from Mr McDowell appears to be a shift in the Minister's position. In January he said that an ombudsman might not be the best way to deal with complaints.

At present, complaints against solicitors are initially dealt with by the complaints department of the Law Society, which is presided over by solicitors. The matter may then be referred to the Solicitors' Disciplinary Tribunal.

Where there is a finding of misconduct, the tribunal can impose a sanction on the solicitor, including a fine, or it may refer its finding and recommendation to the president of the High Court. In 2001-2002 1,233 complaints were received by the society, and 23 were referred to the tribunal.