CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY

 

Opening Remarks by

Charlie Flanagan TD, Minister for Justice and Equality

 

Distinguished guests,

 

It gives me great pleasure to be with you this morning for the launch of the Smith and Williamson Annual Legal Survey for the period 2017 to 2018. 

 

Your annual legal survey is now much relied upon as a state-of-the-nation appraisal of the legal services sector in this jurisdiction.  [ This year the survey does it again as we ponder whether Theresa May … or may not. ]

 

Following the UK Brexit referendum decision, we have had over a thousand British-based solicitors take out Irish practising certificates so that they can practise eventually inside and outside the EU or have the best of both worlds as optimistic Brexiteers like Boris Johnson might say! So let us not lose sight of the fact that our island can be a busy “crossroads” and business hub for access to those worlds in a post-Brexit setting.

 

In that respect I want to start by saying to those smaller legal firms who may not be in the top twenty for the purposes of this year’s survey – don’t lag behind where Brexit is concerned ! Not that I want to encourage Brexit – quite the opposite! But the fact is that since the Referendum, the effect of the vote is being felt in many areas.

 

Like all other sectors of our economy, the Irish legal services sector cannot be a second mover in the Brexit era. Sure, there are myriad uncertainties in play but none of them will be as big as the uncertainty faced by doing nothing.

 

In that spirit I commend the fact that the Bar Council has taken a lead in conjunction with its colleagues in the King’s Inns and in the Law Society to spearhead a Brexit strategy for our legal services sector. This is a dynamic approach to the differentiation of our own legal services domain and what it will now uniquely have to offer.  I met the Bar Council yesterday and I was quite impressed by their presentation to me yesterday on this topic, which is supported by the Taoiseach and the IDA.

 

I think it is important that the legal services sector be embedded in the mainstream of our national Brexit strategy including as it evolves over the coming months.

 

Without letting complacency creep in, we also need to remind ourselves that we are in a period of good growth in the legal services sector as reflected by this morning’s survey. While we have underlying concerns about what Brexit and all the change it brings we are starting from an enviably good base and with growth in employment as well.

 

There are also new opportunities in areas such as those of Data Protection including in the onset of the EU General Data Protection Regulation and its attendant regime and what will be its lasting legal implications.

 

Nor should we lose sight of the middle ground when law firms from the UK take up small green-field operations in Dublin or approach indigenous law firms with strategic collaborative proposals. These are also part of the currency of international legal business and part of the path which we must now tread.

 

At the same time I am concerned to see that, while the Survey has identified opportunities in the cyber sphere, it has also identified growing cyber threats to the daily conduct of business in law firms. Cyber security is a priority area that I assure you are being addressed by the Government including at a national strategic level with a particular focus on how such threats impact on individual enterprises and firms.

 

The challenges of coping with global and technical change with resilience and flexibility are issues that I and my colleagues in Government are also seeking to facilitate in the context of the Legal Services Regulation Act of 2015.

 

The new Legal Services Regulatory Authority has just marked the first year of its appointment during which it has been obliged to complete a raft of consultations and reports. These, as you will be aware, focussed on Legal Partnerships, Multi-Disciplinary Practices and the current restrictions on the work done by barristers. I thank those of you who participated in that process.  In light of that work and under the terms of the 2015 Act I am now giving priority to the coming into operation of Legal Partnerships as an early structural reform.

 

As this audience will appreciate, provision is also made in the Act for the introduction of “Limited Liability Partnerships”. I note that this is being regarded, along with Brexit, as something of a potential “game-changer” in this morning’s Survey. I am very aware of the incentive to legal business that can be offered by the introduction of Limited Liability Partnerships - this has already been highlighted to me in relation to Legal Partnerships involving solicitors and barristers. 

 

I will, therefore, be pressing on for the early roll-out of Limited Liability Partnerships on that basis while also appreciating that they will level the playing field when contracting with international law firms who already enjoy that status in their own jurisdictions.

 

With the recent appointment by the Legal Services Regulatory Authority of a full-time Chief Executive, I very much look forward to the coming on stream of the Legal Services Regulatory Authority’s remaining functions over the coming period. This will include the crucial public complaints and professional discipline architecture which will be a cornerstone of public confidence in the new regulatory regime. At the same time I also recognise the work that remains to be done in ensuring that the underlying risks and working capacities are adequately addressed in so doing.

 

Thank you all for your attention.

By way of concluding my remarks, it is interesting to note that a cutting-edge legal firm like Smith and Williamson has ended up with a managing partner in Dublin called Wyse – and - a Head of Professional Practices Group in London called Murphy! These islands will remain intertwined as they always have been – come what may!

 As this year’s Survey reveals, we clearly have more to gain by working together !