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Appointment of Member of the Legal Services Regulatory Authority: Motion (Continued)

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1004 No. 1

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Pa Daly: Information on Pa Daly Zoom on Pa Daly] I refer here to solicitors and barristers who are willing to take on powerful forces, vested interests in government and the media and insurance companies that seem to have far too much influence for my liking in any republic. Article 40 of the Constitution, which relates to fundamental rights, is brilliant in its simplicity. It states: "All citizens shall, as human persons, be held equal before the law." That is something that has to be enforced at all times because if one is unfairly dismissed, injured at work or accused of an offence, rightly or wrongly, and if one's liberty is at stake, one will need to seek the advice of a solicitor or a barrister.

We will not be opposing this motion. I wish Ms Malone all the best in her work with the Legal Services Regulatory Authority, which, I hope, will continue with the work it has been doing.

Deputy Brendan Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin I warmly welcome the nomination of Ms Deirdre Malone by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission as a member of the Legal Services Regulatory Authority. Quite clearly, Ms Malone is most qualified to fulfil that role.

I agree with Deputy Daly that the Legal Services Regulatory Authority was long overdue in being established. I am delighted to see it functioning. It still has a very demanding agenda of work to be completed. The structure of the authority is a balance between representatives of the legal profession and representatives of consumers of legal services. If one looks at the ten statutory nominating bodies, four are from the legal professions and six are from what might be broadly categorised as representing consumers of legal services. We will have to watch with great care how they function into the future because they have a number of important functions. One is education and training and the requirement for a statutory framework set out in various analyses of the legal profession. Once one embarks on a legal profession, or any profession, one needs to have in-service training of a standard and that needs to be regulated in some form.

The authority has a responsibility under statute to promote competition in the provision of legal services in the State. That is a requirement under the Act. It is an important requirement because there are many citizens who fear seeking to vindicate their rights through legal process because of the prohibitive costs of taking legal actions. For those who are well financed, there is no difficulty in ensuring that their legal rights are well protected but that is not the case for all. It is something of which we must be mindful.

I want to raise an issue that caused me some concern when I heard about it during the week. I refer to a spokesperson from the Law Society referring to the charging of negative interest rates in respect of moneys held in solicitors' clients' accounts. If the banks levy such charges on the solicitors where there is an accumulation of moneys, for example, mortgages - in one bank there is more than €2.5 million and more than €3 million in another - it is being suggested that solicitors will aggregate people's hard-earned money that they got from the sale of houses until the transactions are finalised and might charge negative interest on those accumulated accounts. I do not recall interest being paid in respect of those accounts when positive interest rates were available. Maybe some solicitors' practices paid interest on those accounts but I am not familiar with any that did. It would be unfair for them to do as has been outlined. A more fundamental issue that arises is the objective of promoting competition. How can a spokesperson for the Law Society make a blanket statement to the effect that solicitors will apply this on a uniform basis. Surely that is anti-competitive and I am sure it is not allowed. If individual solicitors want to do that, let them argue the matter with their clients but surely others who do not want to do it should be able to provide that service to their clients as well.

As I say, the regulation of legal professions is important work. We are dependent on legal practitioners in this country and sometimes people are in awe of dealing with the law. We need to have an oversight body that has teeth, power and capacity. The framework is there but we need, as Deputy Daly said, to ensure that the authority has the resources to do its job. We need to provide adequate oversight of their functioning. I hope there will be regular presentations to the Joint Committee on Justice of the ongoing work as this important body beds down and provides services to our citizens.

Deputy Catherine Murphy: Information on Catherine Murphy Zoom on Catherine Murphy I welcome the appointment of Ms Deirdre Malone by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. Her experience with the Free Legal Advice Centres will be valuable in the context of her work with the Legal Services Regulatory Authority.

The Legal Services Regulatory Authority was established in 2016 and plays an important role in the reform of our legal services. Indeed, one of the areas identified by the troika as urgently in need of fundamental reform was that of legal services, as has been raised already in this debate in the context of the fact that it is prohibitively expensive for people to take action when it needs to be taken. In 2019, the body became responsible for progressing allegations of wrongdoing against solicitors and barristers. Since taking over the complaints procedure, it has detailed in its biannual report the number of complaints it has received and the stages of resolution. In total, 1,241 complaints had been made and 55.4% related to misconduct. Three hundred and fifty-six cases have been closed and 234 deemed inadmissible, with 35 withdrawn. Eighty-six were resolved prior to the informal resolution process, which has already been said. No cases have completed the informal resolution process to date and, therefore, none has moved to the determination process. I suspect that is the area where most resources will be required to get to resolution. We must keep under review what resources are available to the board and whether they are sufficient to do that work on an ongoing basis.

Informal resolutions, with or without the assistance of the Legal Services Regulatory Authority, are the preferred option and it can take some time to mediate these disputes. As has been pointed out, the Legal Services Regulatory Authority reports both parties receiving correspondence. Once they receive that correspondence, it often prompts them to find a resolution. We must be sure that such resolutions are fair. People can often feel that there is inequality in a process. I would like to see some further work done on that in terms of surveying what the experience has been. It is too early to judge the process given that it was only put in place relatively recently. It will also take some time to deal with the volume of complaints. I presume that some of those complaints would have been historical in nature.

Shortly after it was established in 2016, the authority began to review barrister and solicitor education. It found evidence of a lack of clarity in respect of the competencies required for a solicitor or a barrister, indirect barriers to entry to the professions, unnecessary duplication in learning and assessment, a mismatch in terms of the skills taught with the needs of users of legal services, gaps in quality and a lack of independent oversight in the education system. It is useful that this has been documented because it obviously sets out an agenda.

The traditions relating to the education of barristers and solicitors have remained largely unchanged since the 19th century, with the Law Society and the Honourable Society of King's Inns holding a monopoly over the professional training.

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