A new legal services regulatory authority, a new complaints procedure and independent disciplinary tribunal for the legal profession, and a new office of legal costs adjudicator are among the proposals contained in the Legal Services Regulation Bill, published today.
The new authority will have 11 members, seven of them lay, and will be appointed by the Government. It will report to the Minister for Justice and the relevant committees of the Oireachtas.
It will be empowered to set up sub-committees, including a complaints committee, to which clients may go in the first instance. The matter can be referred for mediation or other informal resolution. If it goes to a hearing of the complaints committee, that can impose a series of minor sanctions.
If the matter is more serious, the regulatory authority will refer it to the Disciplinary Tribunal, which will also be appointed by the Minister for Justice and will have a lay majority. This will have the same power as the High Court to compel witnesses and the production of documents.
The disciplinary tribunal will have at its disposal a range of sanctions similar to those available at the moment to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, including the referral of the legal practitioner to the High Court for striking off.
The new regulatory authority will also be responsible for drawing up or approving codes of conduct for the two branches of the legal profession, deciding on levels of professional indemnity insurance and supervising entry into the professions.
It will review the provision of professional legal education and prepare a report for the Minister on how this is to be delivered in future, and by whom, ending the monopoly on legal education exercised by the Law Society and the King’s Inns.
In relation to legal costs, legal practitioners will be obliged to outline what these are likely to be in advance, and, where there is a dispute, this will be adjudicated by a legal costs adjudicator.
The Bar Council has criticised the Bill, claiming it will reduce competition and increase legal costs. It said it went far beyond implementing the outstanding recommendations of the Competition Authority, contradicting a number of them and the EU/IMF Memorandum of Understanding with the Irish Government.
The chairman of the Bar Council, Paul O’Higgins SC, said: "An independent legal profession is a cornerstone of democracy, and the Bar Council is determined to protect that principle.
"While the council recognises the desire of the Government, the EU and the IMF to reduce costs in many sectors at this time, we would point out that legal costs have been declining dramatically over recent years, with severe cuts in criminal and civil cases.
"If the collective Government or an individual Minister has final say over all aspects of the regulatory function and code of conduct this could cause problems for barristers taking such a stance [criticising the Minister]."
The Bar Council has also voiced its opposition to the proposal to introduce multidisciplinary partnerships and the abolition of the independent referral bar.
Mr O’Higgins said, "If partnerships are to be introduced, this will dramatically contract the available numbers of barristers and greatly restrict access to justice for those who cannot afford legal representation. At a time when the Legal Aid provisions are being curtailed and the Legal Aid system has a waiting list of up to nine months and 4,500 clients waiting for a first appointment, this will severely impede availability of quality representation for the general public and those who cannot afford representation."