PDs call for legal ombudsman


AN OMBUDSMAN should be appointed to help deal with problems arising between members of the public and the legal profession, the Progressive Democrats said yesterday.

The party will include in its forthcoming election manifesto a proposal for the representative bodies of solicitors and barristers, the Law Society and the Bar Council, to set up the new position.

Mr Michael McDowell SC, the party's justice spokesman, said the ombudsman would be a "more user friendly and informal means of getting some degree of satisfaction" about complaints. Mr McDowell described the ombudsman as "someone who would hold the hand of clients if they were having unsatisfactory service from the legal system".

He added: "If someone was complaining that they were not getting a good service, they could complain to the ombudsman. It's Just a means whereby people can have some redress short of calling for someone to be debarred."

The present complaints handling procedures of the Law Society and the Bar Council were "quite effective by and large", Mr McDowell said. "Professional bodies will naturally be defensive to some extent and people outside will feel that they stick up for their own. Even though they both have outside people on their disciplinary bodies, that doesn't end the matter."

The "vast majority" of people want immediate action on their complaints, rather than a hearing at a much later date before a disciplinary tribunal or committee.

The proposal for an independent legal services ombudsman with statutory powers was first made at the Progressive Democrats' conference last November.

Dublin South party member, Mr Victor Boyhan, whose conference motion on the issue was passed, said the current system of disciplining solicitors "no longer commands complete public confidence".

Mr McDowell said his party favoured a single ombudsman to deal with complaints about both barristers and solicitors, with the professions jointly bearing the cost of it. He said an alternative could be the appointment of two ombudsmen, one for complaints about solicitors and the other about barristers.

He compared the post to that of the Insurance Ombudsman, who is appointed by an independent council and funded by the insurance industry. Ms Paulyn Marrinan Quinn works to settle disputes between policy holders and their insurance companies.