Legal Services Regulation Bill

By Omar Perrozzi

There has been much debate in the media about the Legal Services Regulation Bill published by the Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter. It does seem to me that whilst there are welcome reforms in the bill, much of the proposed legislation will primarily have a detrimental effect on the public’s access to justice as opposed to reforming the legal profession.

The clear benefits of the bill are the greater transparency in relation to the manner in which legal costs are agreed between Solicitor and Client (or determined in the absence of agreement) and the revised complaints process being more independent of the law society.

It is important that we distinguish the ideal of reforming the legal profession and the removal of the independence of the legal profession. The bill provides for the creation of the Legal Services Regulatory Authority and it is the powers conferred on the authority being subject to Ministerial approval is what has caused most consternation among lawyers.

According to the provisions of the bill, the Government appoints and may remove members of the Regulatory Authority. The Government determines the term of office, remuneration and expenses of the members of the authority. The Minister for Justice is to be kept informed by the authority of developments in relation to the provision of legal services.

The Minister is afforded the right to approve the appointment of consultants or advisors to the Regulatory Authority. The Minister is allowed to direct the content and form of the annual report to be published by the Regulatory Authority. Ministerial consent is required for the authority to amend, revoke or withdraw approval for a code of practice or professional code. It is the potential for Governmental scrutiny and influence that could potentially affect the public’s right to assert their individual rights against the State.

The bill does not just affect the legal profession. Almost 50% of court cases have a statutory body involved so the bill affects every citizen in this jurisdiction seeking to assert their individual rights through the court process. The question which the Minister needs to address is how to allow the Courts the independent ability to judicially review the decision of a statutory body when a member of that statutory body has made a decision due to the fear of dismissal because the Government states that they have formed that particular opinion.

Reform of the legal profession is necessary. The removal of the independence of the legal profession is hazardous. A recent publication of the law society of Ireland quotes the former U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Warren Burger:

“The very independence of the lawyer from the government on the one hand and the client on the other hand is what makes law a profession. It is as critical to our system of justice as the independence of judges themselves.”

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