157. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the reforms that have been made to the legal profession since 2010, given the serious public concerns that this profession remains totally unreformed; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [35231/15]
Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Frances Fitzgerald): The Government has undertaken a comprehensive and unprecedented structural reform and modernisation process in relation to the provision of legal services in the State and in relation to our inherited and arcane legal costs regime. The vehicle for this programmatic reform is the Legal Services Regulation Bill 2011 which is being delivered on foot of the commitment of the Programme of the Government for National Recovery 2011-2016 to – “establish independent regulation of the legal profession to improve access and competition, make legal costs more transparent and ensure adequate procedures for addressing consumer complaints”. Though initiated under the EU/IMF/ECB Troika Programme of 2010, the Government’s continued commitment to the Bill is reflected in the fact that it continues to be a component of the Action Plan for Jobs 2015and of the Medium Term Economic Strategy 2014-2020while also being part of the National Reform Programme 2015.
The Legal Services Regulation Bill completed its Dáil Stages on 22 nd April 2015. Since then, I have commenced its passage through the Seanad where it completed Second Stage on 13th May 2015. Preparations are, therefore, ongoing for Seanad Committee Stage which I would anticipate taking place in the coming weeks. It is the Government's continued intention that the Bill be completed by the end of this year so that the new Legal Services Regulatory Authority can come into operation at the start of 2016. Work on the Bill continues on that basis including in conjunction with the Offices of the Attorney General and of Parliamentary Counsel. This legislative work is taking place alongside the practical planning that is necessary for the accommodation, staffing and functioning of the new Regulatory Authority. An allocation of €500,000 has been made under my Department's Vote this year to support the start-up of the new Authority.
I would remind the Deputy that the Bill and the historical reforms which it contains have not stood still since the Bill's initial publication. Indeed, the Bill is now much advanced and developed and comprises 158 sections spread over 13 Parts. During its passage through the Dáil over 235 enhancing amendments were made. These included a series of amendments which reinforced the independence of the new Legal Services Regulatory Authority in its appointment, which is to be done through nominating bodies, and in the discharge of its statutory functions. I would, therefore, point the Deputy to the four main levers of change and reform now contained in the reinforced Bill.
Firstly, the Bill provides for a new, independent, Legal Services Regulatory Authority with responsibility for the oversight of both solicitors and barristers. While the Law Society has historically discharged the function of regulator under the Solicitors' Acts up to now, barristers have not, in the past, been subject to similar legislation.
Secondly, the Bill provides for an independent complaints system to deal with public complaints including those relating to professional misconduct. There will also be an independent Legal Practitioners’ Disciplinary Tribunal to deal with both legal professions thereby replacing the two separately operated Tribunals that exist at the moment. The public will now make their complaints directly to the new Legal Services Regulatory Authority and not through the professional bodies as happens at present. In addition to the Bill's formal misconduct procedures, I have now made additional provision by Government amendment for the informal resolution of more minor, consumer-type complaints such as those relating to inadequate services.
Thirdly, the Bill provides for a new and enhanced legal costs regime that will bring greater transparency to legal costs in how they are charged and disclosed to clients and this regime will apply to barristers as well as to solicitors. I would point out that the Bill sets out, for the first time in legislation, a set of Legal Costs Principles (Schedule 1 of the Bill refers). The Bill also provides that a new Office of the Legal Costs Adjudicator will replace the existing Office of the Taxing-Master. The new Office will have a modernised and efficient business structures, will deal with disputes about legal costs, will prepare Guidelines and maintain a public Register of its legal costs determinations. I have also made a range of technical enhancements to the legal costs provisions of the Bill taking account of expert views received. These measures complement those cuts and savings in legal costs made across the board by State Bodies who are, in combination, the largest consumer of legal services.
Fourthly, the Bill provides a framework for Alternative Business Models. It facilitates new forms of legal services provision such as Legal Partnerships and, in due course, Multi-Disciplinary Practices. These take account of the emergent new business models in other common law jurisdictions and the huge advances made in business and on-line technology which might otherwise leave Ireland at a continuing competitive disadvantage. The new models will operate, by choice, alongside the existing modes of business used by legal practitioners, including small solicitors’ firms and, for barristers, the Law Library. The Deputy will wish to be aware that there were three main elements to the changes which I introduced at Dáil Report Stage in relation to these new business models which are now embedded in the Bill, namely,
- A series of new provisions to strengthen the regulatory powers of the new Authority and to make additional prudential provision for any future participation in Legal Partnerships and Multi-Disciplinary Practices. These business models will also be subject to periodic review.
- Legal Partnerships, that is to say partnerships between barristers and solicitors or between barristers themselves, will be subject to a public consultation process to be completed within six months of the establishment of the new Regulatory Authority and are then to be introduced within six months of those consultations being completed.
- Multi-Disciplinary Practices, that is to say practices in which legal practitioners provide their services alongside other non-legal service providers, will now be supported by detailed research. This will focus on the likely effects which their introduction may have on competition, on the Irish legal services market and in relation to the legal professions. The findings of this research on MDPs will then inform the six-month public consultation process already envisaged under the Bill and will also be laid before the Houses. The commencement of the provisions governing Multi-Disciplinary Practices will then become a matter for the Minister following these processes and on foot of their outcomes and recommendations.
As we approach Seanad Committee Stage, I consider the Legal Services Regulation Bill to be at a very advanced stage of development having taken on board a whole range of concerns and improvements in the furtherance of legal services reform. We have, in this key piece of legislation, the wherewithal to realise the desired reforms which lie at the root of the Deputy's Question and I look forward to working with him and the Members of both Houses in the weeks ahead to bring them to early finalisation and enactment.