The elimination of a restricted practice should be applauded, but the powerful legal lobby in Dáil Éireann brought about an anti-consumer heave.
I realise that house conveyancing is an essential part of the business of many solicitors' firms. I understand that difficulties will arise for small offices if the business is opened up but that must be balanced with the rights of the public to have a choice, and that right has been eliminated. The might of the legal lobby in this House is much in evidence in the Fianna Fáil Party.
When the last Solicitors Bill was with the Select Committee, Second Stage having been agreed in this House in April 1992, a determined effort was made to have some of its provisions substantially watered down. There was a large number of solicitors on that committee and a cross-party attempt was made to erode many of the provisions of the Bill. Members of the public and of this House must be vigilant in this matter as the provisions of this Bill, when it goes to Select Committee, may be eroded too.
The vast majority of solicitors are honest, hard working people who try to do their best for their clients. Where I differ with the profession is that it is self-regulatory, is unwilling to face up to the fact that there is mismanagement and, in a minority of cases, corruption in the profession. The self-regulatory powers should be taken from the profession and that should be done by an independent body with representation from the consumer.
Since I became a Member of this House in 1981 I encountered many problems, but where I detect the most exploitation and the most serious problems is in the legal profession. In the early eighties the Incorporated Law Society refused to face up to the problems and rejected allegations by me and by many excellent journalists who courageously raised the issues of corruption and mismanagement in the profession. People who complained to the Incorporated Law Society about problems with solicitors went through a fruitless exercise as the society denied that problems existed. When I raised this issue publicly the reaction was unprecedented. The Law Society now accepts there is a serious problem with a minority of its members, agrees that privileges have been abused and that allegations by me have, in many cases, proved correct.
The Law Society, as a trade union and a regulatory body, puts its own interests first and has done so for years. If people decided to take their problems to the courts they faced high costs and were quickly swallowed up in a jungle of a court system in trying to have their complaints dealt with.
This Bill had a long incubation. It was drafted in the Department of Justice in the early eighties and came before the House in early 1992, but because of the election in that year it was withdrawn at Select Committee stage. It has since gone through hibernation and has now resurfaced. I hope the Bill, having passed Second Stage, will be dealt with urgently.
Many of the problems in this area are so widespread that an effective group was set up to represent victims of solicitors' activities, namely, the Irish Family Farm Therapy Group, who have highlighted injustices in recent years. This group was formed as a result of the Incorporated Law Society's failure to respond to criticisms of its members and structures and its practice of dealing with complaints in an arrogant and aggressive manner. Only in recent years, because of the weight of evidence and the volume of public opinion on this issue, has the Law Society moderated its views and finally accepted that there is a problem.
I am unhappy about the continued policy of self-regulation and the basic principle underlying this Bill is that the Law Society will continue to regulate itself. Despite provisions to protect the public interest, a powerful group which controls the legal system cannot offer the public adequate safeguards. The Bill is flawed because of the retention of the self-regulation principle. The Incorporated Law Society has been half-hearted in dealing with cases of alleged misbehaviour and mismanagement by its members and people who protested to the society were informed that if they wished to take civil action against solicitors they had a right to do so. However, they were often not advised on how to proceed and they found it almost impossible to get a solicitor to act on their behalf.
In recent years the Incorporated Law Society set up a panel of solicitors to deal with complaints from the public about the behaviour of solicitors. That panel operated in theory only. The most recent evidence available shows that the panel does not work in the majority of cases. The Incorporated Law Society is aware of a recent case in Cork where a member of the public who had his case referred to a disciplinary committee of the High Court found it impossible over a period of months to get a solicitor to represent him before the committee. He ended up on the defensive when the committee warned him that unless he appeared before it at an appointed date and time the case would proceed without him. It was only after intervention by public representatives — I warned the committee that I would highlight the matter in the Dáil — that some flexibility was shown. The person eventually got a solicitor and the matter was settled before it went before the disciplinary committee. This recent example demonstrates the way in which people who use the present system are disadvantaged.
I wish to refer to unemployment and legal costs. One of the major impediments to job creation is the cost of liability insurance. The costs of employer liability, personal liability and car insurance are so high that individuals with financial resources find it more attractive to deposit money in a bank account where it will earn interest. The Government should consider the introduction of price control on the level of professional fees.
The Incorporated Law Society and bodies which represent the medical profession can come together and unilaterally decide on the level of fees for their members. This type of closed shop decision-making impacts severely on the level of insurance premia. Neither the Government nor the public has any input into the decisions on the level of these fees. We have seen many recent media articles about the level of fees paid to solicitors involved in the beef tribunal. Consideration has to be given at some stage to the level of lawyers' fees and the fees paid to doctors who attend court hearings. The closed shop decisions on the level of these fees is one of the main factors driving the level of premia through the roof. The role of the taxing master must also be examined and some effort made by the Government to introduce a degree of control on legal costs.
We all know of examples of ambulance chasing where people are encouraged at the drop of a hat to take frivolous cases against companies and local authorities and pursue them to the limit. The practice of ambulance chasing is anti-jobs, against the common good, deplorable, unpatriotic and impacts adversely on the level of awards paid by local authorities. Cork Corporation has been stung so many times by claims that it has had to open up a personal liability fund — it could not afford to retain the services of an insurance broker. Much of the annual budget of the corporation is allocated to the projected costs of civil litigation. The Minister must make an attempt to eliminate this irresponsible practice. Unfortunately the Bill does not adequately address this issue.
The Bill purports to provide greater protection for the clients of solicitors. However, the reality is that the Bill will reinforce the dominant position of solicitors. It appears that the Bill was largely drawn up by the Incorporated Law Society. This point was made very effectively by Mr. Noel Ryan on a recent radio programme. Recent newspaper articles have stated that the Incorporated Law Society and solicitors breathed a sigh of relief at this Bill, indicating that it is not as bad as they expected. This can only mean that the Bill is not as good as the ordinary citizen expected. The root and branch changes required have not been provided for in the Bill.
I will attempt to highlight the provisions which fall far short of what people expected. On sections 9(6) and 15(4)(g), I reject totally the concept of any time limit on complaints by clients against solicitors. The imposition of time limits on complaints of any nature constitutes an amnesty for rogue solicitors, whether it be in terms of bills of cost, fraud, negligence or delays. The very idea of passing into law a provision which would effectively exonerate solicitors, officers of the court, from wrongdoing purely on the basis of a time limit is so outrageous that it has to have been thought up by solicitors. If legislators allow solicitors to commit wrongdoings within a certain time frame to the detriment of clients they will be enshrining in law the right of solicitors to practise premeditated wrongdoings. The above sections ignore the position of the aggrieved client, concentrate on planning an escape route for solicitors and will put the client at risk. The relationship between a client and his solicitor is, by its very nature, an unequal one, where the client puts his trust in his solicitor and must not be taken advantage of. Legislators should do everything to ensure that the weaker party, the client, is protected.
Section 15(1) proposes the appointment of an independent adjudicator. The provisions in this section are a contradition in themselves. This section highlights the ridiculous and misdirected nature of the Bill. The provisions in this section are so bad that they can only be termed appalling. Legislators and the parliamentary draftsman have failed to see the contradictions in this section. In essence, the section proposes that the Incorporated Law Society will establish, maintain and fund the office of an adjudicator, supposedly independent, to investigate the society. How could an adjudicator appointed under these circumstances be independent? As the Incorporated Law Society will be paying the expenses of the office, the adjudicator could not possibly be independent. The Incorporated Law Society is de facto the trade union for solicitors and as such could be neither impartial nor independent in dealing with complaints against members of its profession. If, as proposed in section 15(1), the adjudicator is an employee of the Incorporated Law Society then his independence will go out the window, so to speak.
The Incorporated Law Society has repeatedly said that the number of complaints is very few, a statement which I reject. If the society's claim is true, it should not have any problems with the appointment of an ombudsman. Despite all the promises, there is no reference to an ombudsman in the Bill. Why is this the case? We can see the clear hand of the Incorporated Law Society at work in the Bill and the so-called legislators have failed to rectify this appalling situation. If the Bill is implemented in its present form it will be incestuous and amount to what I would term "angels incorporated" where the members will clip their wings within their society. The Incorporated Law Society may have managed to fool some legislators but it certainly has not fooled the ordinary citizen. The society seems to be wide awake while the Minister and his Department are fast asleep.