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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
Unrevised

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Michael Healy-Rae: Information on Michael Healy-Rae Zoom on Michael Healy-Rae] The courts system is very cumbersome and, as with everything else in the country, it is being held up by Covid. Life is very short and anything we can do to speed up what I would call the mechanisms of the State would be most welcome and most appreciated by the customers and the legal professionals themselves.

Deputy Marian Harkin: Information on Marian Harkin Zoom on Marian Harkin I welcome the appointment of Deirdre Malone by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission to the Legal Services Regulatory Authority. She will make a significant positive contribution to the work of the authority, which plays an important role in ensuring confidence and trust in the legal profession.

I welcome the fact that the authority is ensuring gender equality in its membership with seven women and four men as members. It is also important that the majority of members on the board are what we call lay members. Five members represent the legal profession and six members represent consumers, legal education, legal costs, equality and access to justice and fair competition.

The authority is the independent regulator for legal service providers and its role is to work to ensure and improve standards in legal services and, crucially, to ensure value for money for consumers. The board is the first point of contact for any person who wishes to make a complaint about barristers or solicitors. The service is free and impartial. It investigates issues such as excessive fees, inadequate service and misconduct of any kind. Certain time limits apply so people need to be careful about this. Complaints can be made by letter or online.

With regard to excessive fees, it is clear the cost of legal services must be written in language the client can understand. The Legal Services Regulatory Authority also monitors advertising by solicitors and barristers. There are some restrictions, especially around advertisements for personal injury claims. The authority's annual report from March to September last year detailed the number and types of complaints and my colleague, Deputy Catherine Murphy, already outlined these.

I welcome some of the most recent recommendations from the authority, which deal with the monopoly role of the Law Society and the King's Inns in providing professional training so people may become solicitors and barristers. This monopoly must come to an end. The authority has proposed a new statutory framework for the education of lawyers. A single body would be responsible for the setting and maintaining of standards of legal education, and a new committee, the legal practitioners education and training committee, is proposed in the report. Its role would be to ensure existing and new providers adhere to the standards. One of the benefits of this would be to break down some of the barriers to entry to these professions that still exist.

Since 2016, a series of reports have recommended reform. The Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, welcomed the recommendations on breaking down this monopoly when she said we must address the administrative barriers that aspiring lawyers continue to face. This is important but we need to see it happen. Last year, we also saw an important change, whereby solicitors are now able to apply to become senior counsel, overturning a 300-year rule. There is no doubt that the authority is bringing the legal profession up to date and making it more accountable to citizens. Transparency is essential so that citizens can have trust in our judicial system. The authority is helping to ensure this. I wish the new member, Deirdre Malone, well in her work on this very important regulatory authority.

Minister of State at the Department of Justice (Deputy James Browne): Information on James Browne Zoom on James Browne I thank my colleagues throughout the House for their contributions in support of today's motion to approve the appointment of Ms Deirdre Malone to the Legal Services Regulatory Authority. She has been put forward as a statutory nominee of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. This will enable a similar motion to be brought before the Seanad for consideration and approval. As I have said, Ms Malone's appointment, if so approved, will complete the current membership of the authority while also bringing her recognised expertise and experience to bear on its important work of regulation and reform.

The Legal Services Regulatory Authority has now come into full operational mode as a key component of the ongoing reform of the legal services and legal costs in the State. This includes the commencement, with effect from 7 October 2019, of a range of measures under the Legal Services Regulation Act 2015. These include the new public complaints and professional conduct regime, which is now in operation. The authority has appointed its new complaints and review committees to deal with allegations received.

Complaints are now made to the authority rather than through the legal professional bodies, as happened previously. More than 1,800 such files were open during 2020. Separately, this work will feed into the new and independent legal practitioners disciplinary tribunal, for which a chair and members were recently appointed by the President of the High Court, on nomination by the Minister, Deputy McEntee, following a public competition under the 2015 Act.

The authority has managed the regulated roll-out of limited liability partnerships for solicitors' firms, making them more attractive for international legal business. The new and more consumer friendly legal costs transparency requirements for legal practitioners, whether solicitors or barristers, have also come into force. The separate establishment of the Office of the Legal Costs Adjudicators to modernise the old Taxing Masters regime has been completed by the Courts Service. This is supported for the first time in legislation by a transparent schedule of legal costs principles and a publicly accessible register of determinations, which is maintained by the new office.

The authority recently completed two further statutory reports under section 34 of the 2015 Act, which the Minister, Deputy McEntee, has also laid before the Houses. These deal respectively with the possible unification of the legal professions and the reform of the provision of legal professional training and education. The Minister has also asked the authority to examine further the conditions of apprenticeship and devilling undergone by aspiring lawyers to further augment the reforms in this area.

New and more consumer focused legal services advertising regulations for solicitors and barristers were introduced by the authority in December 2020 under section 218 of the 2015 Act. The legal bodies no longer carry out this function. The new Advisory Committee on the Grant of Patents of Precedence, which considers candidates for senior counsel, be they solicitors or barristers, has been established with the administrative support of the authority while chaired by the Chief Justice in its own right. The second round of applications for appointment through this committee has just closed. The Minister has sought to encourage a renewed focus on enhancing the gender balance and diversity of potential applicants. Clearly, there is much important work to be completed by the authority in the ongoing performance of its regulatory functions. Today's motion can augment this in progressing the appointment of Ms Deirdre Malone.

  Question put and declared carried.


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