In October, approval for the publication of the Legal Services Regulation Bill was granted to the Minister for Justice and Law Reform, Alan Shatter. Its publication was met with some controversy from the Law Society and the Bar Council of Ireland, who were concerned about the effects the provisions of the Bill would have, if it were to be passed into law.
The Bill proposes a new regulatory system, independent of the Bar Council and Law Society, as well as allowing for multidisciplinary practices, all with the aim of increasing competition and transparency within the sector. The Bill was drafted based on recommendations for reform from the Competition Authority in 2006 but it has been brought to the fore based on conditions set by the European Union/International Monetary Fund (EU/IMF) in the Programme of Financial Support for Ireland.
Providing for a new office, taking over from the Taxing Master, the Legal Costs Adjudicator will be a government appointed body which regulates legal costs and deals with complaints of professional misconduct. The idea is to provide transparency for consumers, a move welcomed by the Consumer Association of Ireland, despite unease from many legal professionals. The Bill also highlights several issues which it does not provide for directly, but which this new regulatory authority would be required to investigate further, including a potential deviation from the split profession of barristers and solicitors as well as paving the way for a review of legal education and training.
Concerns over a possible threat to the independence of the profession have been widely discussed since publication, given that the regulatory body will be made up of a government-appointed panel with a lay majority. Dean of Law, Professor Colin Scott, however, does not believe these worries are justified. “I am aware that members of the legal profession are anxious about their independence but I do not feel these concerns so strongly. Costs are already subject to a degree of regulation and the Bill provides for a new structure … Fees are already subject to downward pressure as part of a more general process of market adjustments, due to the recession and decisions by government to reduce fees.”
It is this matter of reduced legal costs, and the idea that if this Bill passes, the legal profession may no longer be as lucrative as it has perhaps been shown to be before, which raises sharply contrasting opinions from UCD’s Law students. Patrick Fitzgerald, a second year student, argues that “those who went into law to make the big bucks, and believe me they still exist in the classrooms of Roebuck, should realise that while we have made sacrifices in educating ourselves that we have no right to charge ridiculous fees to members of the public. Rather than facilitating justice, we are impeding justice for members of the public and any move to reduce lawyers’ fees is welcome for the sake of justice.”
James Conroy, a third year student, takes a different view on the situation. “I think people would realise when they see the amount of pressure a solicitor or barrister would be under and for the price that they’re getting, they’d be inclined to think ‘It looks like a fun job but it’s not worth it for the pressure you’re under and the money you’re getting.’ I think it would be a more daunting situation to go into. It would push me further to go to a different jurisdiction.”
Professor Scott, however, does not believe that it will have as big an effect on the bank balances of Irish solicitors and barristers as is perhaps being made out. “Well-trained and skilful lawyers will continue to make good livings in Ireland and have options to seek employment in other jurisdictions. There may be greater competition in Ireland, but Ireland must also compete for good lawyers. Many lawyers, of course, receive fairly modest incomes and there is evidence that these incomes have been squeezed, but this is more a product of changes in the market than consequences of the Bill.”
This Bill aims to remove restrictive practices within the legal profession, and to balance the interests of the general public, the consumer and the legal professionals in a way which remains fair to all. The issue of regulation of costs has proved the most contentious issue at hand at the moment, and with the twenty-ninth amendment to the Constitution looking set to pass [at time of going to print], perhaps the legal profession is beginning to feel a bit targeted. With a long process ahead before the Bill can be passed into law, there is still room to find a solution suitable for everyone.