Parts of legal sector reform 'not in public interest'

 

THE BAR Council has criticised proposals concerning the legal professions in the Government’s four-year plan and in the EU-International Monetary Fund (IMF) programme of financial support.

The four-year plan states that competition in the professions generally will be “promoted and overseen by an independent figure” reporting to the Government and that a legal costs Bill will be introduced.

The EU-IMF programme is more specific, stating that an independent regulator will be established and outstanding recommendations of a Competition Authority report will be implemented. The Memorandum of Understanding, published after the deal between the Government, the IMF and the EU, also commits the Government to “establishing an independent regulator” and the implementation of the recommendations of the authority’s outstanding report.

This 2006 report recommended the establishment of a legal services commission and the opening up of professional training to institutions other than the Law Society and the King’s Inns, who are the sole providers at the moment.

Responding to queries from The Irish Times, the Bar Council said it welcomed aspects of the plan and the programme. “However, there are other aspects which have come as some surprise to the Bar Council, and which cause it concern, not because of any sectional or selfish interest but because they do not appear to be in the public interest,” it added.

The Law Society is meeting tomorrow to discuss the proposals.

Bar Council chairman Paul O’Higgins SC said the council had not been made aware of any detailed proposal to give effect to the establishment of an agency described as an “independent regulator” and it awaited details.

However, he pointed out that following a long process of discussion in the wake of the 2006 Competition Authority report, the Legal Services Ombudsman Act 2009 was introduced, which provides for the independent supervision of the regulatory and disciplinary functions of the disciplinary machinery of the Bar Council and the Law Society.

“The Bar Council notes that the position of legal services ombudsman has recently been advertised in the national press. It is not clear how that position will interact with what may be a further State agency, namely, the ‘independent regulator’,” he said. He expressed concern that such a body would lead to increased costs both to the exchequer and to barristers, which would create upward pressure on legal fees.

A spokesman for Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern said that details of the legislative changes for the legal profession indicated in the Memorandum of Understanding would be announced by way of publication of the proposals “that will in due course be approved by the Government in this area”.

“Consideration will, of course, be given to the question of what implications the changes will have for the office of legal services ombudsman,” the spokesman added. The department also said that the legal costs Bill would provide for better regulation of costs and for the establishment of a regulator to replace the Office of Taxing Master.

TCD law lecturer Eoin O’Dell told The Irish Timesthe single most effective reform of the legal system would be the establishment of an independent regulator and the introduction of genuinely competitive tendering.