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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 Catherine Murphy: Information on Catherine Murphy Zoom on Catherine Murphy] The attitude towards professional and educational institutions has changed since both bodies were established. Institutions have become more transparent, accessible and diverse and less tolerant of privilege. The legal sector has largely been resistant to change, with a tendency to cling to tradition.

Last year, the Legal Services Regulatory Authority proposed a new statutory framework for the education of barristers and solicitors under which a new independent body, the legal practitioners education and training committee, would be responsible for setting and maintaining new standards. The Law Society and King's Inns would be required to meet those new standards. Crucially, this proposal would allow other educational institutions to provide professional training for barristers and solicitors.

Deputy Bríd Smith: Information on Bríd Smith Zoom on Bríd Smith While the board is new, it has seen hundreds of complaints from the public and others, more than 400 of which are still being addressed and investigated. The complaints seem to range across many issues, but one of the themes running through them is rudeness and a certain level of abuse by members of the legal profession. As such, it is welcome that there is some limited oversight of the profession's members. That is good for the public in general. However, there are wider issues to do with the power and influence that personnel in the legal profession can have over the lives of ordinary people. The poorer and more vulnerable and marginalised one is, the greater that power and the greater the calamitous impact the decisions of the law can have on one's life. Over the years, I have seen how judgments to do with workers' rights and trade union pickets can be used to browbeat trade unions and workers.

I will briefly deal with the impact of those in power and those with legal oversight on a particular vulnerable group, namely, asylum seekers and refugees. The workings and decisions of the International Protection Appeals Tribunal, IPAT, have often amazed and angered me, as does the entire process of how asylum seekers are dealt with. Many Deputies share this frustration. I have often had to listen to the far right and others who do not want asylum seekers to be given any right talking about "bogus asylum seekers". The evidence they use for this is the high level of rejections of applications for asylum status. When one examines some of the cases, though, it becomes clear that the criteria and bar used by the IPAT are ludicrous. A couple of years ago, we knew a doctor who had fled from Sudan. He was a socialist and political activist in his country and was under threat from the Sudanese regime. His case was recorded by the UN as requiring asylum from the conflict, in which he had been involved. In Ireland, however, his case was rejected. I am glad to say that, years later, he won his appeal, but this shows that our system is not fit for purpose.

For many, their experience at the hands of the IPAT is harrowing. This month, we found out that a member the IPAT panel, which makes life and death decisions over vulnerable asylum seekers, who was appointed by the State and remains in that position holds views that are on the extreme end of the political spectrum on matters that are vital to the running of this country. Apparently, she does not believe it is possible to be gay and live in a country or society in which that is socially disapproved of. The implications of this are astonishing. As a result of her view, she rejected the application of a bisexual man from Nigeria and stated that, if he was returned to his country, there would be no reason he would suffer persecution. The same woman believes Covid-19 is a hoax and has addressed rallies of the far right and fascist groups. She believes that we are using Covid-19 to hold power and sway over people. It is unacceptable that any holder of an office that dispenses any form of justice or legal authority should have reactionary and offensive views like that. Will the Minister remove this person immediately from the two boards she is appointed to and signal that we view the abuse by any member of the legal profession on any of the groups to which the Minister makes appointments as unacceptable in our society?

Deputy Michael Collins: Information on Michael Collins Zoom on Michael Collins The Legal Services Regulatory Authority is the body responsible for processing allegations of wrongdoing against solicitors and barristers, but it should do more than that. It received an average of more than four complaints per day in its first six months of work. According to its annual report up to September 2020, the authority received 636 complaints concerning lawyers between 7 October 2019 and 6 March 2020. Of these, 633 related to solicitors while only three were about barristers, who typically do not deal directly with the public. There were 342 complaints concerning alleged misconduct, including 42 complaints alleging fraud or dishonesty. There were 238 complaints relating to allegedly inadequate services and 56 relating to overcharging. The authority expressed concerns about the number of allegations of solicitors failing to complete undertakings and stated that some complaints related to undertakings that were over a decade old.

These are the facts. I have plenty of constituents who have had tough times with solicitors and felt vulnerable in their hands. One lady who came to my office had bought a house that was structurally unsound. She had been pushed from one solicitor to another because there was a so-called conflict of interest. This went on for many years. To this day, she is still in a battle to keep her home. Another constituent went through a legal separation. The fees that person was charged would have gone a good part of the way to buying a house. I have also dealt with a case where a person was wronged by her solicitor concerning her house. My staff and I spent days trying to contact other solicitors the length and breadth of Ireland to take what was a legitimate case, but there was no way one solicitor would take a case against another.

There must be a full and transparent way for a client to see the charges before any work is carried out as opposed to the idea of sitting down with a solicitor who then simply charges whatever he or she wants. That is highly irregular in today's world and would not be accepted in any other business. More transparency is needed. The idea that solicitors can do what they want and get away with it needs to be done away with. I am not saying that all solicitors are like that, but there is a certain percentage in every profession who are disdainful. I welcome the Legal Services Regulatory Authority and I encourage it to help clients who have been hard done by solicitors.

Deputy Michael Healy-Rae: Information on Michael Healy-Rae Zoom on Michael Healy-Rae In my life's experience, I have found the legal profession to be extremely professional to deal with and responsible. When people are at a vulnerable stage in their lives, be it at a time of death, purchasing or selling something or distress, they need someone they feel they can rely on and trust. As in all professions, we might know of a small minority of cases through our own experiences, having heard from people or having encountered them as public representatives where individuals had engaged in activity that was not above board. On the whole, however, those involved in the legal profession would only warmly welcome more regulatory stipulations that would ensure that the wrongdoing of others was penalised and stopped.

Anything that we could do to speed up delays in systems, be it the Land Registry or the legal profession, which is designed to grind very slowly at times, would be welcomed by the legal profession and the people whom we are here to represent. We constantly hear people saying that it is a fright that there is such a delay with this or that. I am not condemning the processing system for the Land Registry, but it is slow and cumbersome. Even if it takes more money, personnel or whatever, could we all work together to put something in place to deal with the delays?

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