Purpose: to provide the statutory framework for the independent regulation of solicitors and barristers, to make legal costs more transparent and to ensure adequate procedures for addressing consumer complaints.
The controversial Legal Services Regulation Bill was published on 12 October and outlines the creation of three new entities:
• a Legal Services Regulatory Authority to regulate both legal professions;
• an Office of the Legal Costs Adjudicator to be a more transparent replacement of the Office of the Taxing-Master; and
• an independent Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal which will officially deal with complaints about professional misconduct.
As well as these, the Bill would make provision for legal partnerships and multi-disciplinary practices, establish a roll of practising barristers, and reform the law on charging costs by legal practitioners and the system assessing the costs of legal services.
The Bill is designed to meet Programme for Government and EU-IMF commitments emanating from the recommendations of the Legal Costs Working Group (November 2005) and the Competition Authority (December 2006).
Justice Minister Alan Shatter introduced the Bill saying: “Together, these provisions will promote competition and transparency in the organisation and provision of legal services in the State and in relation to legal costs. They will also create a single and independent point of call for those who wish to make complaints about legal services.”
The Legal Services Regulatory Authority will have 11 part-time members: seven lay members (including the Chair), two nominated by the Bar Council, two by the Law Society, one legal accountant and one ministerial appointee.
Its functions will be to review the education and training standards of the legal profession, the codes of conduct of solicitors and barristers and the organisation of the provision of legal services in Ireland. It will prepare a report for the Minister on how legal education is to be delivered in future, thereby ending the monopoly on legal education held by the Law Society and the King’s Inns.
Specifying the minimum levels of professional indemnity insurance required, inspecting legal practitioners and dealing with complaints against them will also be in its remit.
More serious complaints, which are currently dealt with by the complaints structures of the professional bodies, will go to the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal. It will have the same power as the High Court to compel witnesses and on the production of documents. It could also refer the legal practitioner to the High Court for striking off.
There will be a deeper obligation on both legal professions to provide clients with up-to-date information on how their cases and costs are progressing. The Office of the Legal Costs Adjudicator will deal with applications for adjudication of legal costs. In doing so, it must verify that the case represents work that was actually done, and whether the cost was fair and reasonable.
The Bar Council has criticised the Bill, claiming it will reduce competition and increase legal costs. Chairman Paul O’Higgins SC said: “An independent legal profession is a cornerstone of democracy, and the Bar Council is determined to protect that principle.”
The council believes that the Bill will also create further obstacles for entrants to the legal profession.
Shatter contends that the Bill will see “restrictive practices which inhibit the delivery of legal services being removed through new business models.”
Law Society Director General Ken Murphy has welcomed the Bill’s intention to make the legal system “modern, transparent and predictable”. However, he has reservations about the choice of model for implementing a regulatory authority because it goes against the Competition Authority’s recommendation to use the model undertaken in England and Wales. The model to be used was rejected by the UK Government because it would “undermine excessively the independence of the legal profession [and] was likely to be more costly.”
Tags: Statute summary