I move that the Bill be now read a Second Time. This Solicitors Bill was initiated quite a long number of years ago by the Incorporated Law Society. It has been, over those years, the subject of prolonged and detailed discussions between the representatives of the solicitors' profession, the Incorporated Law Society and successive Governments. As a result of those detailed discussions and negotiations, I think I am entitled to say that a pretty substantial measure of agreement was arrived at between the last Government and the Incorporated Law Society. As a result of further discussions that have gone on since the recent change of Government I think I can say that complete agreement has been reached on a variety of topics and on the Bill as a whole between the present Government and the Incorporated Law Society.
Having regard to these extensive discussions, the long period of time during which these discussions took place and the very substantial, if not indeed complete, measure of agreement that has been achieved, it is proper to describe this Bill as an agreed measure. I appreciate, of course, that the Dáil and Seanad can make such amendments to this Bill as is thought proper or expedient in the public interest. Nevertheless I do suggest to the Deputies that they should approach the consideration of this Bill in the frame of mind that those people who are intimately concerned with the profession have been given every opportunity of making their case and that successive Governments representing the public interest have, with a view to ensuring that the public interest would be adequately safeguarded, dealt with this matter in the way I have indicated.
This Bill, it is quite clear, involves not merely the regulation of a learned profession but in very many respects it involves the public interest as well. Solicitors are not merely members of a learned profession acting for private clients or private interests. They are officers of the court, they handle trust money, they handle the property of their clients and are the repositories of the secrets of their clients. The general public interest requires from the members of that profession individually and from the profession as a whole high standards of efficiency, integrity and, above all, honesty. This Bill, therefore, comes as a public Bill in which it seeks to regulate the general affairs of the solicitors' profession and also to safeguard the public interest. I think Deputies may rest assured that as far as the public interest is concerned the present Government, the last Government and previous Governments who handled this matter did everything possible to ensure that the public interest would be in every respect safeguarded. A word of tribute is due to the representatives of the solicitors' profession and the Incorporated Law Society for this Bill because while it may be described as the charter of the solicitors' profession, nevertheless it imposes upon solicitors, individually and collectively, far greater burdens than it provides easement for individual solicitors of the profession.
The main objects of the Bill as set out in the explanatory memorandum which has been circulated to Deputies might be briefly restated. They are: to repeal and re-enact, with modifications, the existing law as to solicitors; to enforce stricter discipline within the profession; to regulate professional practice and conduct; to make the profession more self-governing than it is at present; to require solicitors to keep proper accounts and to keep clients' moneys and trust moneys separate from their own; to establish a compensation fund out of which grants may be made to relieve or mitigate losses arising from the dishonesty of solicitors or their employees; to remit the stamp duty payable on the admission of solicitors and on their annual practising certificates, and to reduce the stamp duty payable by persons becoming apprenticed to solicitors. It will be clear from that statement that the Bill enables the solicitors' profession to regulate their own domestic concerns, to provide, subject to certain safeguards, for all matters of discipline, for all matters of fees, for all matters dealing with the admission of solicitors, the education of solicitors' apprentices, and so on.
Where public interest is involved or where the rights of individual citizens might be jeopardised by that particular body that is set up under the Bill, there is allowed an appeal to the Chief Justice, and where regulations are to be made where the public interest would be involved, the Chief Justice is interposed as the guardian of the public interest save in the case of the amount of the contribution that each solicitor is to pay towards the compensation fund that is to be set up under the Bill. In that case, the Minister for Justice is inserted into the Bill to safeguard the interests of the public and to see that the contribution that will be payable by solicitors under the Bill when it becomes law will not be reduced under the sum of £5. I think the general idea of interposing the Chief Justice into this Bill between the solicitors' profession and the public is because of the fact that the Chief Justice has been, since the establishment of the State, really the judicial officer with the particular function of supervising certain activities of the solicitors' profession. It is desirable at all events that the Chief Justice should be retained in his powers and functions in the manner and to the extent disclosed in this Bill.
I do not think it is necessary for me to go in any greater detail through this Bill. An explanatory memorandum which has been supplied gives in very simple and comprehensive fashion an outline of the main provisions of the Bill. The Bill deals with the admission of solicitors, the discipline of solicitors, and also makes provision against unqualified persons practising as solicitors. I think, however, the real interest from the public point of view in this measure must lie in the parts of the Bill—namely, Parts VII and VIII—and in the Fifth Schedule of the Bill, providing for the keeping of separate accounts by solicitors of their own moneys and moneys which they hold either in trust or on behalf of clients, and for the setting up of a compensation fund to provide some measure of indemnity, and ultimately a full measure of indemnity, for clients' losses caused through the defalcation or dishonesty of solicitors or their employees.
Part VII of the Bill contains details requiring regulations to be made with the concurrence of the Chief Justice providing for the opening and keeping by solicitors of accounts at banks for clients' moneys and for moneys of any trust of which the sole trustee is a solicitor or the trustees are a solicitor with partner clerk or servant of his or with more than one of such persons, and the keeping by solicitors of accounts containing particulars of clients' accounts and the keeping by solicitors of accounts containing particulars of and information as to money received, held or paid by them for or on account of any trust of which the solicitor is sole trustee or the trustees are a solicitor with partner, clerk or servant of his or with more than one of such persons.
It would be expected that in the normal course of events solicitors acting in a businesslike way would completely separate accounts of moneys which they receive from their clients, and keep them separately from moneys of their own and not use a bulk account containing a client's moneys which may come in mixed up with their own or perhaps using that composite fund as their own money. This is a measure in this Bill which I think will be of particular interest to the public and it is one that will require, what I believe all efficient and honest solicitors will welcome, that separate accounts can be kept in order that there should be less liability to defalcation on the part of the profession. The Bill also prohibits banks from setting off the amount of money that happens to be lodged in one account which is, in fact, a trust account or a client's account, against the liability of the client's own personal account.
Part VIII of the Bill sets up the compensation fund. I think I should again, perhaps, say at least a brief word of tribute to the solicitors' profession for their proposals in reference to this compensation fund. As things stand at the moment, clients have no redress against a defaulting solicitor and unfortunately there have been perhaps too many cases of defalcations in recent years, but in order that their profession should stand well with the public and that it should be made apparent to the public that the profession requires the highest standards in professional integrity and honesty these proposals were made by the solicitors' profession themselves. Without these proposals there would be no remedy for clients. The compensation fund which is being set up under this Bill will have to be built up over the years. It is not the kind of fund that can be established straight away. It is not the kind of fund that could be made liable for perhaps all the defalcations, if all the solicitors were suddenly to go wrong—something which will not, in fact, happen.
For the first five years it is proposed that there should be a fund established and financed from contributions by individual solicitors, such contribution amounting to in or around £5 a year and that for the first five years the solicitors' body itself acting through the Incorporated Law Society or whatever committee they set up under it, shall have full discretion as to the amounts that will be paid either in indemnity or part indemnity or by way of ex gratia payment towards indemnification of losses sustained by clients through defalcation or dishonesty of solicitors or their employees.
After that period of five years, the object is to achieve a fund which will give complete indemnity to clients for defaulting solicitors and their employees except in the case where these defalcations are contributed to by the client himself by his negligence or otherwise. That, I think, is a proper safeguard to put in because a client may possibly, knowing that a solicitor has defaulted on his funds, knowing perhaps that he has contributed by his own negligence, allow a solicitor to carry on as a solicitor inspiring a feeling of confidence in other clients and solicitors and members of the profession as well, and thereby cause other damage and loss which might be avoidable. At all events, I stress the importance of this fund, which is one set up at the instance of the profession themselves. It is the scheme suggested by them and approved, with certain modifications, by the last Government and by the present Government. It is the scheme that we recommend to the House, the scheme that will give something to the clients which they never had before and which will, taken in conjunction with the other provisions as to separate accounts, give the public confidence in the solicitors' profession and endeavour to raise and maintain the standard of professional conduct and integrity in the profession as a whole and in individual solicitors.
There is one other matter that I think should be referred to. Part X of the Bill provides for the abolition of certain stamp duties that were originally payable by solicitors and solicitors' apprentices. The Minister for Finance is giving up the revenue that previously inured to the Exchequer from those stamp duties but, in return, the solicitors have given certain undertakings. They have undertaken to prescribe such fees as will enable them to discharge without financial assistance from the State the duties imposed upon them by the Bill, to relieve the State of any financial responsibility to assist in the production of students' textbooks and to contribute an additional £500 per annum to the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting towards the cost of printing and publishing the Irish law reports. Moreover, individual solicitors will have to pay an annual contribution of £5 to the compensation fund which is being set up, and when the fund commences to provide full indemnity they may be asked to pay a further £5 in any year in which this is necessary to secure the financial stability of the fund.
The intention is that the stamp duties which up to now have been collected by the State should be applied so as to enable the society to meet the heavy burden they are now undertaking.
I think it is proper that that statement should be made for the guidance of whatever authority hereafter has the duty of fixing or reviewing the amounts of any of the fees that may be charged in pursuance of the Bill when it becomes law.
In conclusion, I would like to stress through this House the desirability of this Bill becoming law before the 6th January next. The Bill proposes that on that date the compensation fund will be established and that solicitors will send their annual contributions to the fund along with their applications for practising certificates in respect of the coming practice year which commences on that date. If the Bill is not enacted by that time, the establishment of the fund would, as the law stands, be delayed until the next practice year comes round.
I think, and I want to emphasise again, that it is very desirable in the public interest that this Bill should be enacted on the date that I have mentioned in order that that compensation fund may be set up and be available at the earliest possible moment.
I think that it is justifiable for me to say that the general principles of this Bill are such as are acceptable to all Parties in this House and accordingly I ask that it be given a Second Reading.