Legal elites have nobbled the rest of us

Four Courts, Dublin

1 March 2016

Nothing sums up the overweening influence of lawyers quite like the revelation that amendments to legislation to reform the profession were sent to a lawyer representative body before they were seen by Cabinet members. 

That shocking situation was one of the facts to emerge from files obtained by the Irish Times on the unrelenting lobbying by the legal profession into attempts to reform it.

The Law Society and the Bar Council were well known to have issues with the now passed, but considerably watered down, Legal Services Regulatory Bill.

But the fact that the Bar Council, the representative body for barristers, was given draft amendments to the legislation before they were presented to Cabinet is shocking, and confirmation that elites have run rings around the little people.

The bailout Troika, of the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission, had demanded we reform our legal system, which is seen as one of the most restrictive and expensive in the western world.

The high costs have huge knock-on effects in areas like motor insurance, with so many injuries claims ending up in the hands of solicitors, despite efforts to bypass them through the operations of the Injuries Board.

And rather than suffering during the financial crisis that began in 2008, it seems the legal eagles have seen their incomes actually go up, something that is quite extraordinary.

According to figures compiled by the National Competitiveness Council, the cost of legal services did not fall to the extent expected during the downturn.

Costs dipped up to 2013, but have since risen, and are now 5.8pc higher than 2010 levels. 

The protected legal sector here restricts entry, limits price competition and grants its members exclusive rights to perform certain tasks, according to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) think tank.

To be fair, the Legal Services Bill did introduce some reforms. These included the setting up of a new legal services regulatory authority, a new complaints system, and some reform around legal costs.

But many of the original proposals were smothered. The reform efforts needed to go much further than the legislation we got. 

Now it seems real reform will have to be for another day, if at all.

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