Friday, February 12, 2016
Legal profession waged four-year battle against reform Bill
Department of Justice files reveal Law Society and Bar Council communications
The power of the legal professions is made clear in Government records detailing the force and extent of their four-year lobbying offensive against measures to overhaul the sector.
Files from the Department of Justice show how the Bar Council, the professional body for barristers, received and rejected draft amendments to legislation before they had been presented to Cabinet.
The files also show the Law Society, the solicitors’ body, overcame a late push by the office of the Attorney General to block arrangements under which it retains key disciplinary functions.
The records, released under Freedom of Information rules, centre on the Legal Services Regulation Act, which was signed into law by President Michael D Higgins six weeks ago.
The files show the Law Society sent scores of letters and emails to the department on policy and technical matters. There were 12 formal submissions from the Bar Council.
When discussions on sensitive aspects were still under way in July 2014, Bar Council director Jerry Carroll sent a “private and confidential” letter to the department in which the body dismissed “controversial” draft amendments – which had not yet been presented to Cabinet.
“We appreciate the fact that we received a draft of the amendments before they went to Cabinet. This is consistent with the spirit of consultation and co-operation in relation to the Bill,” Mr Carroll said.
He said the Cabinet should not be asked to take amendments on a levy on the profession and on proposals to allow lawyers work alongside other professionals, such as accountants. “Some of the amendments are controversial (even though some may appear on the face of it to be non-controversial),” he added. “We are concerned that it is possible that the Cabinet may be asked to approve these (controversial) amendments at a time when the consultation which it has agreed will be carried is ongoing.”
Introduced in 2011 by former minister for justice Alan Shatter, the legislation was cast to reduce legal costs and modernise the professions.
However, after a prolonged campaign, both the Bar Council and Law Society emerged with key powers intactwhen the lawBill completed its passage through the Oireachtasin December.
The Law Society retained financial and accounting oversight of solicitors when Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald released financal amendments last November.
The files showthat one month previously the Attorney General’s office was pushing one month previouslytowards a transfer of alldisciplinary powers from the Law Society “in all matters.”
While a new body will now provide independent regulation of the professions for the first time, numerous steps to water down the legislation have prompted concern that legal costs will not be cut.
At the same time, the files also show that the Health Service Executive sent a paper to the department in whichwrote to the departmentit stresseding the importance of the original plan in its drive to curtail “excessive”legal costs. In addition, former Director of Corporate Enforcement Paul Appleby wrote to Minister for Jobs Richard Bruton in 2012 to express doubt that the original proposal was sufficient to control or reduce “very high” legal costs.
He referred to the “relative silence” of the legal profession on costs, in comparison to their previous opposition to other changes
“When the relative silence of the legal profession in relation to the new arrangements for adjudicating on legal fees is compared with the very considerable opposition to the Bill’s changes in respect of supervisory structures, Mr Appleby said: “I have a concern that this reflects a belief that the anticipated reform of legal costs is not particularly ambitious and is unlikely to have any material impact on the level of costs being awarded,” Mr Appleby wrote.