146. Deputy James Browne asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the position regarding the establishment of the Legal Services Regulatory Authority; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4983/18]
Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Charles Flanagan): I have set out the current position in relation to the establishment of the Legal Services Regulatory Authority in my Written Reply to Questions 509 and 573 of 16 January 2018 which I will therefore reiterate on this occasion.
The setting-up of the Legal Services Regulatory Authority has been under way on a number of fronts since July 2016. At that time Parts 1 and 2 of the Legal Services Regulation Act 2015 were commenced as necessary to get the new Authority appointed and underway. The Authority, which is independent in the performance of its functions under the 2015 Act, has convened regularly since its inaugural meeting on 26 October 2016 - minutes of its meetings are available on its website www.LSRA.ie.
During its initial year of establishment, the Legal Services Regulatory Authority has been deeply engaged in the conduct of public consultations and in the making of five reports on a series of new options for the provision of legal services under sections 118 to 120 of the Act which were also commenced. It had been obliged to complete these within strictly set deadlines running from its day of establishment on 1 October 2016. All of these reports have now been laid, as required under the 2015 Act, before the Houses of the Oireachtas while also being publicly accessible on the Authority’s website.
As reflected in the 2015 Act and the relevant reports completed by the Authority, the Government continues to give policy priority to the introduction of Legal Partnerships by way of structural reform of the legal services sector. It is appreciated that this places additional working demands on the Authority which has, nonetheless, been consulting with the legal professional bodies and conducting workshops in preparation for their introduction.
Alongside its ongoing consultation and reporting commitments, the current working focus of the Authority is, I understand, very much on the managed roll-out of its remaining functions. This includes the matching development of the organisational capacities and office and staffing resources essential to effective delivery. It also includes the necessary preparatory steps for the establishment and application of the new Roll of Practicing Barristers under which both Law Library and non-Law Library practicing barristers will be regulated, for the first time under legislation, by the Authority. This will also be a pre-requisite for the exercise by the Authority of its public complaints functions. A further key area under development is that of the application of the levy that is to be made on both practicing solicitors and practicing barristers under Part 7 of the 2015 Act. Funding support of €1 million has recently been provided to the Authority from the Justice Vote for 2017. This follows an advance of the same amount that was provided from my Department’s 2016 Vote.
It should also be recalled that in parallel to the introduction of enhanced legal costs transparency obligations on legal practitioners under the 2015 Act, extensive legal and technical preparations are also continuing separately within the courts system to complete the transition of the Office of the Taxing-Master to that of the Legal Costs Adjudicators.
Following these steps, the key structural reforms of Part 6 of the 2015 Act relating to public complaints, professional conduct and the appointment of the Legal Practitioners' Disciplinary Tribunal dealing with both solicitors and barristers, will be commenced. It is considered that this component of the Act will underpin the entire new regulatory regime in terms of its observance and enforcement. I will, of course, continue to emphasise the importance which I attach as Minister to the objective of getting the Authority open for business on the core public complaints function as quickly as is reasonably possible while also bearing in mind the risks and complexities which must be carefully managed to bring that about.
The Regulatory Authority is actively preparing to conduct the first periodic review of the operation of the Legal Services Regulation Act 2015 as required under section 6 of that Act. This must be commenced not later than eighteen months after the Authority's establishment day and its outcomes reported to each House of the Oireachtas within twelve months. Moreover, the Authority is putting the practical arrangements in place for the provision, on foot of appropriate public consultations, of the required statutory report in relation to the education and training (including ongoing training) arrangements in the State for legal practitioners, including the manner in which such education and training is provided. This report, which has to be provided to me as Minister within two years of the Authority’s establishment day, will cover an array of matters set out within section 34 of the 2015 Act and be laid before the Houses.
Work has also commenced in preparation for the submission of the Authority's first three-year Strategic Plan under section 20 of the 2015 Act. The Authority will also be submitting its first full-year Annual Report having previously submitted a report for quarter three of 2016. Work is also ongoing between the Authority and my Department on a new Corporate Governance Assurance Agreement. Arrangements are also underway to fill, with the necessary approval of each House of the Oireachtas, a casual vacancy that has arisen on the Authority due to the appointment of an existing member to the Judiciary.
The Authority is nearing completion of the necessary analysis of the staffing needs and resources required to allow it to support the ongoing roll out of its functions to a structured and achievable timetable and intends to begin additional recruiting to key posts in the near future. There has been continued direct engagement between the Authority and my Department as well as between the Authority and other key stakeholders. This work has been augmented by the recent appointment by the Authority of its first full-time Chief Executive, Dr. Brian Doherty, along with its securing of enhanced office accommodation.
Against this background of complex and competing working demands, both I and my Department will continue to work closely with the Authority to enable it to come into substantive regulatory mode at the earliest opportunity and with appropriate staffing and project management. I am also anticipating an early opportunity to engage further myself with the Authority to discuss progress in relation to these matters. At the same time, it will be appreciated that the Authority is earnestly working to progress the identification and elaboration, in conjunction with my Department, of the more specific delivery dates concerned. I expect these will be made known as soon as they have been aligned, to the satisfaction of the Authority, with its anticipated working resources as an independent regulator.