Legal Services Regulation Bill 2011: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The programme for Government undertakes to "establish independent regulation of the legal professions to improve access and competition, make legal costs more transparent and ensure adequate procedures for addressing consumer complaints". The Legal Services Regulation Bill 2011, presented to the House on 10 October, provides the statutory framework for delivering these commitments. As things stand, these matters are either not legislated for at all or are entombed in a labyrinth of legislation, regulations, rules of court and practice directions that are not only outdated but of great mystery to practitioners and clients alike.

The Bill supports the urgent objectives of structural reform, national competitiveness and economic recovery contained in the EU-IMF-ECB Memorandum of Understanding on Specific Economic Policy Conditionality of 28 November 2010, building on the relevant recommendations made by the legal costs working group in 2005 and by the Competition Authority in 2006. Reflecting the gravity of the current economic crisis which we face, there was an EU-IMF deadline for the publication of this Bill for the end of the third quarter of 2011 which, despite the obvious challenges this presented, was met. The EU-IMF-ECB troika, whose members I briefed on the Bill on 17 October, considers the Bill to have met both the spirit and the letter of the Government's undertakings. The National Competitiveness Council considers the Bill's measures to be "welcome and overdue". The Competition Authority, in keeping with its 2006 report on the legal professions, has welcomed the Bill and its benefits for consumers.

The regulation of a more open legal profession, greater transparency in the charging of legal costs and the removal of restrictive practices in the provision of legal services have been matters of persistent policy concern. There is a plethora of reports relating to various aspects of proposed change in these areas spanning the last 30 years. Along the way, there have been a number of responses to matters raised in these reports in legislation, including the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2008 which contained provisions to strengthen the powers of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal and to increase its lay membership. There have also been some changes in the codes of the legal professional bodies which have reflected elements of these reports.

However, a process of sectoral change and reform that has traversed so long a period and spawned so many reports and faltering initiatives has to have been one of grudging incrementalism. The sectoral reform initiatives of the past three decades have, in the main, been met by patchy or passive compliance.

In 2001, the OECD report, Regulatory Reform in Ireland, again recommended that control of legal education should be removed from the "self-governing bodies". It also identified areas for further reform including the removal of remaining impediments to competition among solicitors; opening up the provision of conveyancing services; direct access to barristers and allowing barristers and solicitors to practise in other business forms. In 2010, the Law Reform Commission published its report, Consolidation and Reform of the Courts Acts, which contained a number of proposals relating to legal costs which naturally augment the work of the legal costs working group in 2006. The commission's report has, therefore, also informed the more transparent and accountable legal costs regime contained in Part 9 of today's Bill.

As Deputies will be aware, the previous Government introduced the Legal Services Ombudsman Act 2009 under a model which would simply have overseen, respectively, the complaints systems operated by both the Law Society and the Bar Council and assessed, on an ongoing basis, the adequacy of their admissions policies. This model would obviously not meet the Government's commitment to independent regulation and our intervening EU-IMF-ECB undertakings and it was decided in May not to proceed with the appointment of an ombudsman. The 2009 Act left the duality of regulatory and representational functions to persist in the hands of the professional bodies concerned — with all of the working conflicts and tensions inherent in this duality.

The starting point for our deliberations is, therefore, the model of independent regulation being provided under the Legal Services Regulation Bill 2011. The EU-IMF-ECB memorandum of understanding clearly identifies the remaining barriers to structural reform, growth and competitiveness in the provision of legal services to be a burden that the country cannot afford to carry anymore.

There are continuing pressures for the introduction of independent regulation of the legal sector. In 2010, there were 8,335 holders of solicitors' practising certificates issued by the Law Society, which had a total of 9,774 members. The Law Society considers there to be upwards of 1,100 solicitors unemployed at this time. Over the last three years there have been a total of 7,600 complaints made to the Law Society, with nearly 6,500 deemed to be admissible. During 2009-10, 724 complaints, or 34%, of the total intake investigated, were made by solicitors against their colleagues. The complaints and client relations section of the Law Society has experienced an unprecedented number of complaints about outstanding undertakings given by solicitors in the course of conveyancing transactions over the past two years. There were 1,647 received during 2009-10, representing over 60% of all those received. A total of 253 High Court orders were issued under the Solicitors Acts in 2010, with 117 applications to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.

During 2008-10, claims amounting to almost €37 million were made against the solicitors' compensation fund, €17 million of it on the crest of the economic boom in 2008. Almost €14 million was paid out in the same period, €8.5 million of it in 2008. The net assets of the fund have more than halved between 2006 and 2011 while the annual contribution for each solicitor has increased by 75% up to €700 in the same period. The Solicitors' Mutual Defence Fund is in the process of an orderly winding down due to what is described by the Law Society as "an unprecedented and extraordinary increase in the number and size of claims against solicitors" in its 2010 annual report. An additional annual levy of €200 per year has had to be imposed on each solicitor of the society for the next ten years.

As of October 2010 there were 2,311 members of the Law Library, of whom 1,989 were practising junior counsel and 296 were senior counsel. Most barristers practise in Dublin but approximately 114 practise in Cork and 179 in the rest of the country. The Barristers' Professional Conduct Tribunal considered 43 complaints during 2009-10, 11 of which were carried over from the previous year. A total of 23 were dismissed, three withdrawn, two proved and 15 continue to be investigated. The tribunal has power to recommend that a barrister be disbarred. One such recommendation — the first ever — was made during that period although it remains unclear as to the practical effect, if any, this measure may have.

It would appear the Bar Council has no real power to prevent a barrister from practising as no statutory provision exists to enable it to exercise such power, nor am I aware of the Bar Council ever seeking such power. Certainly this issue has never been raised with me by the Bar Council. This reinforces the case for independent regulation. The majority of complaints about barristers concerned undue pressure to settle or compromise, not following instructions and conflict of interest. The relevant appeals board heard 11 appeals, of which one was allowed.

The Bill is a detailed and complex one comprising 12 Parts and 123 sections. Part 1 contains general technical provisions such as the Short Title and commencement provisions, interpretation, regulation-making powers and repeals. Part 2 makes provision for the establishment of the legal services regulatory authority, for the purposes of regulating the legal profession. Parts 3 and 4 relate to client accounts and clients' moneys held by legal practitioners and to indemnity cover, respectively. These essentially replicate existing regulatory functions of the Law Society under the Solicitors Acts 1954 to 2011.

At the core of the Legal Services Regulation Bill are three pillars of reform. The new, independent legal services regulatory authority will have responsibility for oversight of both solicitors and barristers. The authority will have a lay majority and a lay chair; the new authority's establishment and functions are covered by Part 2 of the Bill.

An independent complaints system will deal with complaints about professional misconduct. This will provide a first point-of-call for the public, independent of the professional bodies. There will also be an independent legal practitioners' disciplinary tribunal to deal with both professions which will be independent of both the new regulatory authority and the professional bodies. Part 5 of the Bill, which is divided into two Chapters, deals with the new complaints architecture. I expect to bring forward amendments on the structural and perhaps other aspects of this Part of the Bill on Committee Stage.

There will be an office of the legal costs adjudicator that will assume the role of the existing Office of the Taxing Master which will be conferred with enhanced transparency in its functions. The new legal costs regime is covered by Part 9 of the Bill which has 5 Chapters. The determination of disputed legal costs by the adjudicator is bolstered by new legal costs principles to be found in Schedule 1.

Part 10 is a restatement of some basic principles in regard to the awarding of costs in civil proceedings, namely, the court's power to award legal costs is restated along with the general proposition that costs are to follow the event. These provisions are based on recommendations in the Law Reform Commission's report on the consolidation and reform of the Courts Acts.

The Legal Services Regulation Bill will provide a necessary and vastly improved balance of professional and client interests in the regulation of legal services. It cites, in Part 2, section 9(4), six objectives to which the new legal services regulatory authority must have regard in performing its functions. Three of these are in the public and consumer interest: protecting and promoting the public interest, protecting and promoting the interests of consumers relating to the provision of legal services and promoting competition in the provision of legal services in the State. Three support high standards in the provision of legal services: supporting the proper and effective administration of justice; encouraging an independent, strong and effective legal profession; and promoting and maintaining adherence to the professional principles.

Further, section 9(5)(a) of the Bill gives clear statutory expression to the core professional principles. Thus, legal practitioners must act with independence and integrity, act in the best interests of their clients and maintain proper standards of work. Moreover, under section 9(5)(b), they must comply with the duties that are rightfully owed to the court. Under section 9(5)(c), they must, subject to professional obligations, keep the affairs of their clients confidential.

Under the new Bill, there will be independent regulation of solicitors and barristers for the first time. At the current time only solicitors have a statutory governance framework. Hence, the Bill provides in Parts 8 and 11 for a roll of practising barristers and patents of precedence respectively. An award of patent of precedence confers the title of senior counsel. It is an award by Government, being a power originally exercised by the Crown and inherited from our colonial past. No provision for the making of the award is contained in any statute or Act of the Oireachtas.

Since the foundation of the State the award has been made at the Government's discretion on the recommendation of an advisory committee consisting of four people, the Chief Justice, the President of the High Court, the Attorney General and the chairperson of the Bar Council. While there is nothing in law which excludes such appointments being conferred on solicitors, in practice in this State such awards are confined to barristers and the Bar has stridently opposed the awards being extended to members of the solicitors' profession. This exclusion of solicitors for some years has not applied in neighbouring jurisdictions. For example, the recently appointed Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland is both a solicitor and a Queen's counsel.

As evident from Part 2 and other elements of the Bill, the new legal services regulatory authority will have the structures, functions and powers consistent with an effective and independent regulatory body. It will be a body corporate with perpetual succession and seal. It will have 11 members with a lay majority and a lay chair. The professional bodies will have minority representation on the board, comprising two from the Law Society and Bar Council respectively. It will be accountable to the Dáil, including the Committee of Public Accounts and the relevant policy committee, in its own right. It will operate under the standards of transparency, good governance and audit applicable under international best practice to public bodies.

The authority will have an array of functions and powers that will enable it to engage in comprehensive regulation of the legal profession and the legal services market. Thus, it will have power to prepare or approve codes of practice to ensure high standards of legal practice; to propose regulations on key matters including the keeping of accounts, advertising, professional indemnity provision, the protection of clients' moneys and so forth; to monitor admission policies in respect of the legal profession and education or training services for would-be lawyers; to review the structure of the legal profession and how legal services are provided; to provide information on the legal services market; to conduct research into important issues relating to legal services; to help with the co-ordination and development of policy in regard to legal services; and to inspect legal practices and independently supervise the accounts of legal practitioners.

The independence of the new legal services regulatory authority will be assured by the provisions made in the Bill with the authority itself being democratically accountable including, in its own right, to the Houses and committees of the Oireachtas. I do not, therefore, accept the view that the independence of the new authority will be fettered, ministerially or otherwise. The Bill specifically provides, based on precedent elsewhere in legislation, that the authority "Shall be independent in the performance of its functions".

There is no hidden agenda in regard to ministerial functions or appointments under the Bill. That said, I am happy to invite any constructive suggestions that might enhance the Bill's regulatory framework in this regard within the Government's stated policy objective of independent regulation. Indeed, I am already considering some relevant amendments for Committee Stage, such as removing the requirement for the Minister's consent being obtained for any code of practice the regulatory authority proposes be observed by the legal profession.

The Bill will create independent complaints and disciplinary procedures under the provisions of Part 5. The first point-of-call in making a complaint about either of the legal professions will be the legal services regulatory authority, through its complaints committee. The committee, which will also have a majority of lay persons, will assess the admissibility of the complaint. To save consumers time and money, an agreed or alternative dispute resolution such as mediation can be availed of at an early stage.

For complaints that need to go the route of a hearing, there will be a new legal practitioners disciplinary tribunal. Neither the professional bodies nor the authority will run the tribunal: it will be independent of them all. There will be a range of powers to discipline lawyers found guilty of professional misconduct and the ultimate sanction of striking off a lawyer will remain with the High Court. The overall effect of the Bill will be to enhance the independence of the legal professions in the public interest.

In July 2010, the then Taxing Master, Mr. Charles Moran, ruled that a €2.14 million bill for legal services provided in regard to a workplace injury case be reduced by 82%. In the end only €393,000 of the original costs sought were allowed. The Taxing Master considered that the costs before him were "Devoid of all reality, bear no relationship to the issues involved or the nature or extent of the work undertaken or fees allowed in cases where a similar amount of work was required". The Legal Services Regulation Bill, mainly in Part 9, makes provision against this kind of exorbitant costs scenario. It further sets out, for the first time in legislation, a series of legal costs principles. These are contained in Schedule 1 and enumerate the various matters that may be taken into account if disputed costs are submitted for adjudication. For the first time, these cost transparency measures will apply to barristers as well as to solicitors. These measures will also be responsive to any significant developments during a case that may have cost implications for the client or indeed the practitioner involved.

Under the Bill the following provisions will apply: it will no longer be permissible to set fees as a specified percentage or proportion of damages payable to a client from contentious business, it will no longer be permissible to charge junior counsel fees as a specified percentage or proportion of senior counsel fees and legal practitioners will now be obliged to provide more detailed information about legal costs from the outset of their dealings with clients. This will be in the form of a notice which must be provided when a legal practitioner takes instructions. Among other things, it must disclose the costs involved or, where this is not practicable, the basis upon which costs are to be calculated.

Such a notice also has to be issued if a practitioner becomes aware of any factor which may give rise to a significant increase in costs. It should also outline the costs of any litigation that may arise or the costs of withdrawing from litigation, as may be appropriate. Clients will have a cooling-off period within which to consider the notice of costs and whether to proceed with instructing the practitioner to provide the services involved. When finished providing legal services a practitioner must prepare a bill of costs including a summary of the services provided with an itemised statement of the services and costs involved.

A legal practitioner must also provide a client with an explanation of the procedure available should he or she wish to dispute any aspect of the bill of costs, for example, by mediation, and a practitioner must take all appropriate steps to attempt to resolve such a dispute. Failure to include a charge in a notice of costs to a client can lead to its disallowance under a legal costs adjudication.

The Bill also provides for a legal practitioner and client to enter a written agreement concerning the amount and manner of payment of all or part of the costs of legal services provided. No other amount shall be chargeable except to the extent covered by the agreement. These legal cost provisions will also be to the benefit of the professions as they will reduce the possibility of disagreements over legal fees and charges occurring between them and their clients.

As part of its enhancement of the legal costs regime the Bill provides, in Part 9, Chapter 2, that a new office of the legal costs adjudicator will deal with disputes about legal costs. At the current time these are dealt with by the Office of the Taxing Master. The new office, headed by a chief legal costs adjudicator, will modernise the way disputed legal costs are adjudicated.

The office of the legal costs adjudicator can prepare legal costs guidelines for the guidance of legal costs adjudicators, legal practitioners and the public and these will be published. It must establish and maintain a register of determinations which will include the outcomes and reasons for its determinations about disputed legal costs. Contrary to misinformed comment, public access to such decisions will include costs adjudications in regard to family law cases. The Bill simply preserves the anonymity of the family members concerned but does not grant anonymity to solicitors or barristers whose fees are disputed.

In the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2011 new legal costs adjudicator recruitment criteria were introduced under which an open competition has taken place, as a result of which a new appointment to that position has been made this week with a further appointment likely to follow the retirement of the remaining Taxing Master later this month.

For the first time in 85 years the vacant position of Taxing Master was publicly advertised by the Public Appointments Service, which independently assessed the 21 applications received and, having done so, interviewed six applicants and thereafter nominated three names to Government for possible appointment. The person appointment by the Government on Tuesday has outstanding qualifications for the position and his appointment has been widely welcomed by those familiar with his work and expertise. I wish him well in his position.

Alarmist commentary about the potential cost of the measures being introduced under this Bill ignores several key facts. First, the new legal costs adjudicator will, on the basis of a significantly more transparent and accessible infrastructure, replace the role of the existing Taxing Master's office, which itself generates substantial income. In 2010 it collected a total of €2.8 million in fees. Second, both the barrister and solicitor professions already pay enormous regulatory fees to their respective professional bodies. It is anticipated that a proportion of the existing levies borne by the professions should transfer with those regulatory functions of the professional bodies that are to be taken over by the new legal services regulatory authority. The Bill, in Part 6, proposes a formula for this purpose and the cost impact of the transition on practitioners or consumers should be minimal.

It is expected that this redirection of levies will substantially, if not fully, support the running of the new legal services regulatory authority and legal professions disciplinary tribunal. These are among the matters we will work to clarify further in the ongoing consultative process. The establishment of an independent regulator supported by a dedicated levy on the professions will clearly differentiate regulation costs from others such as those arising from representational functions. Not only is it in the interests of the consumer that there be a clear separation of regulatory and representational functions but it is also in the interests of both solicitors and barristers that there be no grey areas between the two and that they have confidence that there are bodies in place which can properly represent their interests.

The Bill includes several measures aimed at opening up the provision of legal services in a way that takes account of new business models and the significant advances that have been made in business technology. These are found mainly in section 30 of Part 2, Part 7 and Part 12. The Bill provides a framework for key structural reforms, building upon a series of public consultations. These will be used to address issues such as partnerships between barristers, between barristers and solicitors, and between lawyers and non-lawyers, also known as multidisciplinary practices, to be completed within 18 months of the establishment of the authority. The Bill also provides for direct access to barristers on contentious business, to be completed within 18 months of establishment. The possible unification of the two legal professions is also envisaged, to be provided within 24 months of establishment of the authority. In addition, there is provision for the education and training of legal practitioners, to be provided within 12 months of establishment.

The Bill also contains other modernisation provisions which provide new opportunities for legal practitioners. For example, it will be possible to establish multidisciplinary practices; solicitors and barristers will be allowed to act jointly as advocates in court and other proceedings; clients will be able to nominate who should lead their case where members of both legal professions are involved and cannot agree; procedures will be put in place to ease switching between the two legal professions of barrister and solicitor; legal practitioners working for private or State entities will be allowed to act as advocates in court proceedings for their employers; the new legal services regulatory authority may make regulations in regard to the advertising of legal services; practising barristers who share premises and costs as a group are to be allowed to advertise themselves as such; solicitors will be able to employ barristers in their practice if they so wish; and a whistleblowers provision will protect employees who report professional misconduct. While providing for new business structures to deliver legal services, members of both professions will continue to be entitled to deliver legal services under the current structures of solicitors' practices and through the Law Library.

It is understandable that those involved in the provision of legal services will wish to be sure of their ground and continued professional standing under the Bill. As such, I take this opportunity to encourage practitioners to embrace the Bill. It presents a watershed opportunity to modernise at the professional, business and transactional levels. Across common law jurisdictions, new legal business models are being rolled out under new law, providing additional commercial opportunities and legal career options. In a globalised world, clients can be expected to follow those developments offshore or to outsource their business accordingly. We can no longer afford to indulge a cabal of legal practitioners who want to stay in the 19th century at the expense of sectoral growth and a viable future for their colleagues.

I wish to put to bed the histrionics and the scaremongering claims that no other civilised country is taking, has taken or may soon take similar steps to those outlined in this Bill towards the independent regulation of the legal professions, including where they interface with a ministerial role. The issue here is not one of a First World versus Third World polemic but rather that an old guard wants to stay in its own world. The truth is that the regulatory regimes of comparator jurisdictions are a mixed bag which not only do not rule out independent regulation as a matter of principle but actually embrace elements of it. The Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, for example, must include a majority of lay people, and appointments to it are made by Government Ministers in consultation with the Lord President of the Court of Session. The Legal Complaints Review Officer in New Zealand is appointed by the Minister for Justice there and has extensive powers to review complaints made in the first instance to the New Zealand Law Society, which regulates both solicitors and barristers. Australia is currently in the process of huge reform in this area and is moving towards the creation of a single national legal profession.

I note that on Monday, 5 December, a conference was held in the Law Society at which representatives of both the society and the Bar Council spoke of the alleged threat the Bill presents to the independence of the legal profession. There is nothing of any nature contained in the Bill which prevents a lawyer from independently representing and advising a client or acts as a barrier to the initiating of any necessary or appropriate court proceedings, including proceedings against the State or against any State agency. There is nothing contained in the Bill which enables any Minister for Justice and Equality or the Government of the day to intervene improperly in legal proceedings. Nor is there anything which enables the legal services regulatory authority to do so.

It is unfortunate that both the Law Society and the Bar Council are using the Trojan horse of a bogus threat to the independence of the professions to oppose the replacement of self-regulation by independent regulation and to raise false fears of State oppression. The approach to the Bill taken by each body to date is neither in the public interest nor in the interest of solicitors and barristers generally. While the many reforming provisions contained in the Bill are clearly in the interests of consumers, it also contains provisions which are to the benefit of members of each profession, some of which will end restrictive practices that are to the detriment of either or both.

Some of the restrictive practices that are to end will be welcomed by members of one profession but not the other. For instance, some solicitors are unhappy at the prospect of members of the public having direct access to barristers for advice. Some solicitors and barristers are unhappy at the prospect of barrister partnerships, while other barristers welcome the business opportunity and greater financial security that practising in partnership can offer. Within both professions there are some who support the creation of solicitor-barrister partnerships, while others are unhappy at the prospect. In both professions there are differing views on the opportunity being given to create multidisciplinary partnerships. Some members of the Bar are unhappy at the prospect of solicitors being conferred with the title of senior counsel, while in past years the Law Society has criticised the title of senior counsel being confined to members of the Bar.

The new business structures for the delivery of legal services envisaged under the Bill will provide not only for increased competition, which is in the public interest, but also for new opportunities to deliver legal services for members of the profession. In doing so, however, the Bill erects no barrier to solicitors and barristers continuing to provide legal services as they do at present. It is a pity the Law Society and the Bar Council have, to date, remained silent on the benefits and opportunities the Bill extends to their members and have instead been intent on persuading both barristers and solicitors that its provisions should be opposed in order to maintain the privilege of self-regulation.

The difficulty for both bodies is that their threat to independence argument is entirely bogus. Since the foundation of the State, it has been the Government which appoints the Judiciary. There is no allegation made by either the Law Society or the Bar Council that the Judiciary is anything other than independent in its determination of cases that come before it. If Government appointment of judges does not undermine their independence, how can it credibly be alleged that appointment of members to the legal services regulatory authority by Government will undermine its independence, particularly since the Bill clearly prescribes that it must act as an independent authority?

At no stage has the Law Society or the Bar Council alleged that the State or State agencies seeking legal advice or representation from solicitors or barristers undermines the independence of the professions. Nor is it alleged that substantial sums of money being paid by the State to lawyers under the criminal legal aid scheme or the employment of lawyers by the State under that scheme undermine the independence of the profession. It has not been suggested that major State agencies such as NAMA, the largest of them all, undermine the independence of lawyers by recruiting solicitor firms and barristers to undertake work on their behalf. The State is also a consumer of legal services and spends millions of euro of taxpayers' money annually on the provision of such services.

It is not only in the interest of individual consumers but also in the interest of the State and indeed, in the interest of taxpayers that there be truly independent regulation of the legal profession. For example, regulatory failures and solicitor negligence has resulted in substantial legal fees having to be paid by NAMA to address conveyancing deficiencies disclosed in the process of the transfer of title securities to NAMA on foot of which many millions of euro were loaned through our banking and financial institutions. A better regulatory system in place could have prevented much of the difficulty which arose in this area and the expense incurred. While the leadership of the Law Society and the Bar Council has been vocal in its opposition to the Bill, many solicitors and barristers have privately communicated to me their support for this measure.

I do not think it useful for any of us to create a false impasse or zero sum game between the principles of professional independence and of independent regulation as these are not, of necessity, mutually exclusive. Taken together, the provisions of the Bill can make the independence of the two legal professions and the independence of their regulation, mutually reinforcing. It is also disingenuous to cite international standards for lawyers to that effect as none supports the premise that professional independence means being beyond the laws of the land. I am at pains to understand those of the legal professions, of which I too am a member, who declare their superiority and imperviousness to the very standards of accountability vested in this Bill which they simultaneously proclaim to uphold. Their collective response to date has been more characterised by histrionics and misinformed opposition to the new Bill than to early engagement in its constructive development and such a response questions the very right of Government to have determined policy. On publication of the Bill I wrote to the Law Society and the Bar Council inviting and seeking their observations. I met with the Bar Council on 24 November last. I have had a helpful response from the Law Society to a series of queries raised on legal education and we will be meeting in mid-January. Yesterday afternoon I received the Bar Council's initial detailed submission on the Bill and I will give it careful consideration. By way of initial reaction, I acknowledge that it contains some constructive content but I am disappointed to note the continuing opposition to reforms which are clearly both in the public interest and in the interests of consumers.

In conclusion, I urge all stakeholders, particularly the legal professions, to embrace the opportunity provided by the Bill to bring about meaningful reform building on the Bill's balance of principles and objectives. I encourage the Law Society and the Bar Council to engage constructively with us in perfecting the Bill and its mutual accommodation of the relevant independence principles. I am confident that, along with other stakeholders, we can bring the Bill to satisfactory enactment. We have within our grasp a unique opportunity to bring the provision of legal services in the State out of the 19th century and into the 21st century while meeting the underlying and pressing challenges of structural reform, national competitiveness and early economic recovery which we face at this time.

I welcome the opportunity to debate the Bill in the House and I look forward to hearing the views of Deputies on all sides. Like any Bill of this size and complexity, I anticipate there will be technical, transitional and other amendments such as those I have signalled and which I will be bringing forward on Committee Stage. I commend the Bill to the House.

I am in agreement with the Minister that the sector requires reform. The central problem is that of costs and this was included in last year's agreement with the IMF and the troika. It is unacceptable that citizens who wish to have their rights vindicated or supported are prevented from doing so because of an appalling financial consequence they may face should they lose in proceedings. For too long this profession has been shielded from effective competition in services offered to ordinary citizens. As a result, costs associated with the legal sector have continuously been well above those of our European competitors. As the Minister said, at a time of economic disadvantage this cannot continue.

I agree a new regulatory structure is needed for the legal sector to ensure that all citizens can have full access to legal services as they require them and which is their constitutional right. It is vital that the independent regulation of the sector is of the highest standard and is above reproach. For these reasons the Minister's action to reform the sector is to be welcomed. I had some hope the Minister would ensure the independence of the legal sector under an independent regulator and that the Bill would provide for reducing the costs of the legal sector and allow for access by all citizens. However, the Bill fails on those objectives and this is very disappointing.

The Minister has a golden opportunity over the next few months to influence the direction of the legal sector for many decades which I hope he will do in a positive and constructive manner. If he is intent on tabling amendments on Committee Stage, I ask if it would be possible to supply amendments to the committee in draft form so we can study them and consult with the various bodies as to their impact on the legislation. This would make for more effective scrutiny of the legislation by the committee.

We will support many of the provisions of the Bill. I welcome the provisions of the Bill which will make it easier for younger people and new entrants to qualify as either barrister or solicitor. I welcome the provision to bring more transparency to the costs involved in legal representation. I hope this will make it easier for clients to challenge costs which they regard as unfair or unjustifiable by means of the new office of the legal costs adjudicator. These are progressive steps which will open up this area and may remove some of the fear associated with the defence of rights. However, many elements of this Bill are distasteful. My party intends to oppose these elements and to table many amendments on Committee Stage. I am particularly concerned about the selection process and the appointments procedure for this new legal services regulatory authority. It should be noted that the Minister and his colleagues campaigned prior to the election against the establishment of quangos and this is a new quango. My party has no issue in principle with the establishment of an authority and we welcome an independent authority to oversee the legal profession. However, the selection and the process of appointment to the body, its budget and the manner in which the cost of the authority will eventually be levied on the consumer, despite what the Minister stated in his contribution, are serious concerns.

This body will, in essence, control and regulate the legal profession. Given the extent of the powers outlined by the Minister and the importance of the legal system in the running of the country, this body will require scrutiny more than most. That the Minister will be responsible for the appointment of seven out of 11 members of a so-called independent regulatory authority is a cause for concern as to its independence. The board appointees — seven of whom will be ministerial appointments — will be responsible for the appointment of the chief executive officer and the staff. No fixed term limits are provided for and neither can the board comment in public on the policy of the Government of the day. In my view, the Minister cannot proceed on this basis. The Minister of the day and the Department will appoint and remove members of the authority. The Minister will determine various terms and conditions of the authority and he or she will be kept informed of all authority developments as to the provision of legal services by lawyers. The Minister and the Department are now central to every activity of the legal sector in this country. This presents many challenges that do not become apparent in other sectors. For instance, the State is often a litigant or a defendant in cases. This presents a conflict of interest. A Minister may at any time decide to challenge the authority or to change the powers of the authority by means of the seven ministerial appointees. This is not a truly independent authority. If the Minister disagrees on this point then we are not using the same standards of independence. The Government has a policy of public advertisement of appointments but the Minister in this case is choosing to maintain the traditional model of establishment of a body. I ask why the Bill does not provide for the Oireachtas committee system to be employed to examine these appointments. Given its importance and the importance of the legal system, something completely different would have been preferable, to remove the appointment of members of the authority out of the hands of the Government of the day.

This new authority will approve the code of practice for the legal profession. That code of practice must be submitted to the Department before being made public. The consent of the Minister and the Department is required in order to implement the proposal and the Minister may make changes and impose qualifications. This is standard practice in the case of many State bodies but this new body is being invested with significant power and authority and the legal system controls every aspect of life in this country. We have to change the rules and challenge the standards in place. The legislation, as it stands, will hand responsibility for regulating the legal profession to the Department and Minister of the day. In such circumstances, the new body cannot be said to be independent.

My party wants to engage constructively on this matter and I hope the Minister also wishes to do so. Some weeks ago in Ballina the Taoiseach indicated he would engage constructively on the issue. Let us agree to get the kicking of the various agencies out of the way today and try to sit down with them and work through their concerns. Let us try to do this constructively in the next few months.

The Minister must also listen to the concerns raised by the business community on the independence of the proposed new authority. Business does not have any self-interest in this issue. Its concerns do not equate to barristers or solicitors representing their interests. It is the commercial sector raising legitimate concerns about the lack of independence of the proposed body and how this will influence investment decisions. The president of the American Bar Association, Bill Robinson, spoke frankly on this issue on 11 October when he stated that a truly independent legal profession is an essential bulwark in a democratic society. Referring to the Bill, he stated what was really at stake for the people of Ireland is constitutional democracy. Clearly, Mr. Robinson has an interest in the issue. Rather than rolling his eyes to heaven, perhaps the Minister will address the specific issues he raised. I had hoped he had learned the lesson of the referendum result but clearly he has not done so. Let us deal with the issues rather than tackling the man. Let us ascertain if the Bill can be amended to address the issue of independence. In five or ten years, the Minister will no longer by in office and other Ministers and officials will enjoy the enormous power being handed over on the regulation of the legal system.

While the idea of having multidisciplinary practices sounds good in theory, it gives rise to several concerns. I draw the Minister's attention to an article written by Mr. Peter Ward of the free legal advice centres during the week. I am also concerned about the ability of those who do not live in the capital to access the best legal services, as they can do both in practice and theory at present. Large Dublin-based legal firms with significant budgets will certainly embrace the multidisciplinary practice concept but will those of us who do not live in Dublin continue to have access to the best barristers given that they may be tied to specific firms through the multidisciplinary practices? Will we be forced to go through specific firms?

One must examine whether it is a good idea to allow a number of professions to practice under one roof. I refer not only to barristers and solicitors but also financial experts because it has been intimated that they will be able to operate under the roof of a multidisciplinary practice. Combining the legal and commercial sectors under one roof could potentially influence legal advice being given. Surely the lesson we have learned in recent years is that we need to establish rigorous safeguards. The difficulty with the manner in which multidisciplinary practices are construed in the Bill is that the model proposed will reduce accountability among various professions and conflicts of interest will undoubtedly arise.

The Minister's approach to the legal services regulatory authority is one of, "It will be all right on the night". Barristers and solicitors pay substantial levies and the Minister has indicated it is simply a case of transferring these levies to the new authority. The authority will cost a substantial amount. The proposal to pass this cost to the Law Society, while fine in theory, fails the test of seeking to reduce costs for consumers. As sure as night follows day, the cost will be passed on to consumers, notwithstanding the models constructed in the legislation. This new quango, if it is fulfil the functions envisaged by the Minister, will need a substantial, highly skilled staff who will expect to be paid well. Currently, 71 people are involved in regulation in the Law Society. One assumes, therefore, that the model required will be similar to the Competition Authority or Medical Council. What budget does the Minister envisage will be needed for the new authority? I ask him not to give a vague answer.

Deputies have not been provided with a regulatory impact assessment on how the legislation will work and impact on businesses and consumers. While the legislation details how the transfer of the current powers of the Law Society and Bar Council to the new authority will take place, it is not immediately clear how the Bill will impact on consumers. I estimate an annual budget of between €5 million and €6 million will be required for the new body. Given the cuts the Minister has made to a range of services in his Department, is the proposed model the most effective solution?

The size and duties of the new quango are extensive. Its role could be performed differently and we will propose a number of amendments. We propose that the Minister's power of appointment to the legal services regulatory authority be transferred. The Minister could consider transferring it to the Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality but the committee is political and the exercise of this power would leave it open to making political appointments. For this reason, I ask him to consider giving the power of appointment to the Chief Justice. Thereafter, the Chief Justice would not be involved in the day to day running of the authority. The position would be similar to that which obtains in the United Kingdom where the Lord Chancellor appoints members of the relevant authority. Such a move would guarantee the full independence of the new body. As the Minister stated, the Judiciary in this country has consistently been above politics.

The scale, cost and power of the new quango are too extensive. Given the lack of detail and absence of a regulatory impact assessment, it is not possible for the Fianna Fáil Party to support the transfer to the new authority of the disciplinary and regulatory functions of the Bar Council and Law Society. We are being asked to buy a pig in a poke because we do not know what will be the impact of the proposal. Is it the Minister's intention to publish a regulatory impact assessment? If not, we propose that the new authority assume a supervisory role over the Bar Council and Law Society with a view to ensuring they implement their regulatory functions in a fair manner and all firms are subject to regulation and discipline. Pending the publication of the regulatory impact assessment, I will not comment further on that issue.

I do not agree with the Minister's proposition that the Legal Services Ombudsman Act is insufficiently strong. I ask him to explain the reason he adopted that position last May. The ombudsman model is leaner and potentially much more effective than the model proposed in the Bill. If changes are required to the Legal Services Ombudsman legislation, we should make them.

Regulation on multidisciplinary practices is too vague and indicates a lack of understanding of where people are at in terms of commercial issues and what has happened not only here but across the world in the area of multidisciplinary practices in the past ten years.

The Fianna Fáil Party welcomes provisions on costs and the measure precluding costs being added without the client being notified. The language in section 82 needs to be tightened to ensure no exceptions can be made to the requirement to publish costs. Notwithstanding the issue of identifying the client, the costs of all cases should be published, especially in the area of family law. Unfortunately, this area of law is the one most people using the Courts Service avail of and seek information on.

I ask the Minister to take a constructive approach in the coming three months. If, as has been suggested, a large number of amendments will be tabled on Committee Stage, I ask the Minister to provide a draft copy in order that Deputies have an opportunity to examine them before making a decision on their merits. I also ask him to put aside his distaste for and displeasure with the various representative associations in the interests of consumers and the profession of which he is a member and work with them to identify areas in which improvements can be made. It would make for a far more positive legislative engagement than that currently being pursued. This is not about lawyers or about people settling personal scores. It is about the regulation of the legal system in Ireland and the manner in which the rights and laws we implement in this House are protected, defended and challenged. Over the next few months, we will write a roadmap for the legal services sector that will be in place for many decades to come. People want decreased costs and increased access. They want to respect the independence of the legal sector. The Bill, as currently designed and construed, fails on the cost issue, on the independence issue and on many other things. I ask the Minister to follow the guidance of the Taoiseach by engaging constructively and openly on changes to this legislation.

I would like to record my appreciation of the useful briefing the Department of Justice and Equality made available to Opposition spokespersons last week. I hope we can replicate it when other complex Bills are being considered in the next few years. This is one of the Bills the IMF insisted be published as soon as possible. As a result of those time constraints, we did not have an opportunity to publish the heads of the Bill. It is unfortunate that the IMF diktat about the publication of this legislation meant the joint committee was unable to listen to the queries, complaints and questions that various organisations have raised in this respect. The consideration that has been given to the national vetting bureau Bill and the legislation dealing with the withholding of information on crimes against children and vulnerable adults has proven that this process is well thought-out and worthwhile. In the case of the vetting bureau Bill, the Minister has taken on board a number of recommendations that were made by the committee. We welcome that.

I understand that after we have considered this Bill on Second Stage, we will have an opportunity to examine the amendments to be tabled by the Minister in advance of Committee Stage. I am sure the Opposition parties will table amendments as well. I ask the Minister to consider the possibility of publishing the amendments in draft format so we can have a dialogue with the relevant groups and organisations. It would make for a better and more informed Committee Stage. If we can speak to the groups in advance of the full Committee Stage debate, the legislation will be much better.

This Bill has divided public opinion in many ways. It is a difficult challenge to strike a balance between safeguarding the independence of the Judiciary and the legal system, and upholding the democratic right of the people to access our legal system and get a fair hearing in an affordable manner. The Bill proposes the establishment of a legal services regulatory authority, a legal practitioners disciplinary tribunal and an office of legal costs adjudicator. The organisation of the legal profession and the costs associated with the legal profession have developed over many years. There has been a great deal of debate on such questions down through the years. This Bill is the culmination or fruition of the various reports that have been commissioned on these matters, including reports by the Fair Trade Commission, the Competition Authority and the advisory group on legal costs. This Bill proposes to deal with seven of the nine outstanding recommendations from the report of the Competition Authority.

This Minister said in his speech that there has been criticism of the Bill as drafted. Not all of it has come from solicitors and barristers. Many people in the media argue that solicitors and barristers have a vested interest in this process. Advocacy groups like the Free Legal Advice Centres have also raised concerns about this legislation. We need to take all such commentary on board, regardless of its source. We need to examine the concerns to see if there is merit in them and move forward from there. People are entitled to fairness and justice in the court rooms and from those who represent them in the legal system. I do not suggest — far from it — that everyone involved in the legal profession engages in unscrupulous behaviour. Like all sections of society, a small minority of those involved in this sector engage in such behaviour. The concern that the Bill, in its current format, may have a negative impact on the ability of some people to access fair justice needs to be examined more closely.

I firmly believe we must always take a rights-based approach to the reform of the legal system. I found it useful to read a research document that was produced by the Law Library. It examined the international human rights standards of relevance to the independence of the legal system in the context of the reforms that are proposed in this Bill. It set out the main democratic principles that underpin the role of legal practitioners in a democratic society. It covered issues like access to lawyers, legal services, qualifications, training, duties, responsibilities and freedom of expression.

The Bill proposes to establish a new authority. As the Minister said, the authority will ensure legal practitioners "act with independence and integrity", "act in the best interests of their clients", "maintain proper standards of work", "comply with the duties that are rightfully owed to the court" and "keep the affairs of their clients confidential". There is an overlap between what the Minister is proposing and the basic principles that have been set out by the UN. That is welcome. The UN principles are a little broader, however. Perhaps we can examine the possibility of dealing with certain areas that are not expressly stated in this Bill. It would be useful to come up with a form of words that could be included in the legislation. Many people in the legal profession would welcome that.

I would like to focus on two areas of concern — complaints procedures and legal costs. It is natural that more complaints are made against solicitors than against barristers because there are more solicitors than barristers. That is just the way it is. Ordinary people often find it difficult to navigate the legal system. They might not know how to make complaints, or to whom they should make them. Rightly or wrongly, the ordinary Joe Soap has a perception that a substantial proportion of solicitors and barristers run a closed shop. I am not saying that perception is right or wrong, but it exists among the general public. There is a perception that legal practitioners are an elite group of people who oppose outside regulation and want to regulate their own professions. Some people would argue that many legal practitioners feel they are untouchable. I will not comment on the reality of such a perception. While the actions of a small minority lend credence to such a view, in general it is not the case. Solicitors and barristers need to take responsibility for the perception that may exist. Many solicitors and barristers, it is fair to say, have a social conscience and social responsibility. One only has to look at the number of them who do voluntary work with the Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC, to see they are not an elite group who are only in it to make money at the expense of the ordinary person.

When one considers the legal profession's self-regulation and procedures, it is not difficult to see how an ordinary person could arrive at the conclusion it is a closed shop. Some solicitors themselves are concerned about this perception and the damage it is doing to the profession. Sinn Féin has also raised concerns about other justice system complaints mechanisms such as how prison complaints are dealt with and the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. The latter is meant to be independent but many perceive it as not, believing it is just gardaí investigating gardaí. A truly independent complaints procedure must be just that.

That is why we have similar concerns to Deputy Calleary's about the proposed legal services regulatory authority. Will this authority satisfy the public's demand for a truly independent process? At the same time, it is important we do not go to the other extreme in which solicitors and barristers believe they will not get a fair hearing from the authority.

As set out in the Bill, four nominations for the proposed authority will come from the Law Society and the Bar Council while seven will be appointed by the Government. In the case of the proposed disciplinary tribunal, a maximum of 16 nominees and a minimum of six can be appointed from the Law Society and the Bar Council with the rest nominated by the Minister. There is a perception that politics is all about jobs for the boys. It is important we deal with this head on. Some of the recent appointments made by the Minister for Justice and Equality have been focused on by the media as benefiting his personal friends and political donors. That takes away from the qualifications and abilities of the persons appointed. It neither does them or the board to which they have been appointed any justice. We must ensure this is not replicated with the proposed bodies in this legislation.

The legislation expressly states the Minister will be responsible for the appointment of laypeople to the disciplinary tribunal. Given the perception that these appointments are jobs for the boys, will the Minister examine putting these appointments before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality or even another mechanism? It would not be a bad idea if we came up with some procedure that could take the Minister and the Department out of the appointments process. It would remove the potential for any aspersions to be cast on the individuals appointed. Sinn Féin is considering tabling an amendment to this section on Committee Stage to ensure those on the disciplinary tribunal will be seen to be appointed on merit and for no other reason.

This is not just important for the public but also for members of the legal profession. The current complaints resolution mechanism is seen as biased towards the legal profession. We cannot, however, go to the other extreme with the new disciplinary tribunal seen as biased against the legal profession. We as politicians should know there is a tendency to tar everyone with the same brush. Politicising the new authority and tribunal runs such risks.

All Members agree with the independence of the Judiciary and the need to ensure it is free from political interference which is vital to the public's confidence in it. Any disciplinary tribunal which sits in judgment over a member of the legal profession who has allegedly breached codes of conduct has to be seen as truly independent. On Committee Stage, will the Minister take into account his role in the appointment of a tribunal and the need to ensure full public confidence in the authority?

This Bill represents an opportunity to address the long-running controversial issue of legal costs. There is evidence to suggest legal costs are actually going down. While this may be a reflection of economic circumstances, it might not always be the case. Part 9 proposes the establishment of a chief legal costs adjudicator to take over the role of the Taxing Master. Any provision which will introduce an element of transparency as to how legal costs are formulated is welcome. From speaking to many in the legal profession, I know they are also open to this idea and welcome it. It is as much in their interest as it is in the public's to have a system that sets out legal costs exactly. It should have happened as a matter of course but it may be down to miscommunication or old practices. This provision will address this issue.

The Bill's proposal for a levy, a fee to be set in conjunction with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, on the professional bodies to cover the expenses of the authority and the disciplinary tribunal needs to be reconsidered. The purpose behind the levy is to reduce the annual fees paid by solicitors and barristers to their respective organisations. It is expected that a portion of those fees will be transferred by these organisations to the new authority. I do not believe this will happen. For it to happen one is relying on the goodwill of the organisations involved to reduce their fees. There is no provision in the Bill preventing the levy being passed on to clients. This area needs to be examined closely on Committee Stage.

There is also a perception that barristers are milking it and much of that comes from the tribunals of inquiry. I know people who paid their way through college. They qualified but they are saddled with huge debts and they do not earn huge money. Allowing this perception to exist does a disservice to them.

I am concerned about the provisions relating to business structures in the Bill. The Minister stated they will enhance competition but I have doubts about that. The arguments in regard to the proposals for forming multidisciplinary practices and legal partnerships will damage competition and accessibility to the legal system. There is no doubt there is room for improvement but the way the Government is approaching this seems like a knee-jerk reaction. The Government parties felt they had to tackle this and this was how to do that. I do not know how much thought went into the process. I am concerned that changing the current arrangements could prevent people from accessing specialists legal advice such as that relating to conveyancing and tax matters. While I acknowledge that the Bill does not compel a barrister or solicitor to form a partnership or be part of a multidiscplinary practice, anything that creates a situation where barristers, in particular, feel they are being herded into specialist areas is a retrograde step. If this happens, it will have knock-on consequences for solicitors.

The Government would do well to remember that this legislation is not about creating giant practices similar to supermarket chains. We have witnessed the damage that has done. I have no interest in supporting a Bill or a proposal that will create the legal services equivalent of a giant Tesco, Dunnes Stores or Sainsbury's a mile out of town which puts the local greengrocer out of business. This has to be the potential to do that. A person may not be able to engage the practitioner of his or her choice because the practitioner may be contractually obliged not to provide services for anyone outside the partnership.

I welcome some provisions in the Bill but there are others I cannot support. Sinn Féin will not support it in its current form. Many issues need clarification and amendment and other provisions need to be inserted in the legislation before we get to the stage where we feel comfortable giving it our support. We have an opportunity before Committee Stage to address many of these issues and I hope the Minister is sincere about being open to listening to concerns and taking on board constructive amendments to see if we can arrive at a position where we can all agree that what is proposed in the legislation to reduce legal costs and making the legal service authority more independent can be achieved by consensus.

I am only in the House nine months and up to 90% of the legislation put through the House has been guillotined. I have tabled amendments to Bills and when Committee Stage was taken, I did not have the opportunity to debate them in full. If I then tabled them on Report Stage, I did not have an opportunity to debate or vote on them. With a Bill of this nature, which will have far-reaching consequences and which is so important, will the Minister ensure no guillotine is applied to the Bill on any Stage of its passage through the Dáil or the Seanad? If a guillotine is put on it, it will only add credibility to the argument the Minister is on a personal crusade to pass the legislation for his own reasons, although I do not believe that to be the case. I ask him to ensure in his discussion with the Chief Whip that this legislation is not guillotined and that every Member who wants to contribute, or to table amendments and have them discussed, has the opportunity to do so. I look forward to Committee Stage.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to comment on the Bill's proposals. I welcome the Minister and I thank his officials for the briefing they afforded the different groups, including the Technical Group. He stated:

The Programme for Government undertakes to "establish independent regulation of the legal professions to improve access and competition, make legal costs more transparent and ensure adequate procedures for addressing consumer complaints". The Legal Services Regulation Bill 2011, presented to the House on 10 October, provides the statutory framework for delivering these commitments. As things stand, these matters are either not legislated for at all or entombed in a labyrinth of legislation, regulations, rules of court and practice directions that are not only outdated but of great mystery to practitioners and clients alike.

I am glad the Minister has been enlightened in this regard because he is a practitioner of some renown for a long number of years and he has much more experience than I have to comment on this area. There is mystique around the legal profession and the courts system whether one is renewing a licence or has been charged with an offence. It can be a daunting experience. The courts system is a little outdated and "a great mystery to practitioners and clients alike".

The Bill is intended to reduce legal costs and make the system more transparent and independent. Above all, it must be independent. The Minister is more aware of legal costs than me but I have been at the other end of the system a few times. The legal system is exclusive and expensive and some people cannot afford to avail of it. The free legal aid system is clogged up and there are major delays, although there have been many abuses of that system, which should also be examined.

The Minister also stated, "The Bill supports the urgent objectives of structural reform, national competitiveness and economic recovery contained in the EU-IMF-ECB memorandum of understanding on specific economic policy conditionality...". I do not know whether any document can be printed now without mentioning these three bodies. We cannot go to sleep without thinking about them. They are in the back of our minds all the time.

We were also briefed by the legal services and the Bar Council and they are genuinely concerned about this legislation and not for selfish reasons. The Government made a point of getting rid of quangos but as soon as the Taoiseach has started abolishing them, the Minister is setting up two or three under this Bill, if not more. I am worried about all the appointments. There are 16 members on one body and 11 on another. I know it is Christmas but the Minister will be playing Santa Claus to a lot of people. How will costs be reduced and reformed if all these appointments are made by the Minister? The quango train is still running well. Perhaps it is an electric train that does not go as fast. That industry still continues to flourish in spite of commitments in the programme for Government and many promises that lots of quangos would be abolished.

The legal services regulatory authority will comprise 11 members appointed by the Government. It will have a chief executive officer but we have no idea what cap will be on his or her salary. If somebody is not happy with the salary, will he be able to return to the Minister for Finance and have it increased?

The authority will have a significant staff, the details on which have not been disclosed by the Minister or his Department, as it is intended that it will take on regulatory functions of the Law Society and Bar Council in respect of all solicitors and barristers in the State. That is a big job. While there are to be many staff, we have no idea how many. There are 470,000 people unemployed and the Minister is making a great effort to reduce the number. Will any college graduates, young men and women who have spent a fortune on legal training, have a chance to have their talents used and to be employed?

The complaints committee will consist of up to 16 members who will be appointed by the authority with the approval of the Minister. They are to be appointed by the Minister. We all know how the system works; it works by a wink and a nod. This practice is occurring again and the system is not transparent or independent by any stretch of the imagination.

The legal practitioners disciplinary tribunal is to consist of up to 16 members, again appointed by the Government on the nomination of the Minister. The Minister will be telephoning a lot of friends over Christmas and the new year to determine how many he can find to oblige him. He appointed one already during the week, but there are many more. Like Santa Claus, the State car will be busy this Christmas driving around to all these clients.

The document implies at least three of the bodies to be established under the Bill will have up to 43 appointed members. God almighty, it is like the rugby panel going out to play a match. A panel of 43 is a fine panel. In the case of the legal services regulatory authority, there is to be a chief executive and a substantial staff. This is a growth industry. There is no growth in the economy but the Minister is certainly growing it with whatever kind of stimulation he is using. He is showing leadership and saying he will create jobs, but they are jobs for the boys and girls. It stinks.

The Deputy would know a lot about that. He was with a party which gave jobs to the boys and girls for about 15 years.

I was and I left it.

He got a few jobs for his own pals also.

The Minister learned fairly fast. He clearly observed Fianna Fáil very closely because——

Deputy McGrath, please.

The Minister made more appointments in nine months than we made in 15 years.

Forty-five in a week.

Deputy Mattie McGrath is a good teacher.

I am not a teacher; I am a learner.

Could we get back to the debate, please? There are 15 minutes remaining.

Good man, a Cheann Comhairle. I am thankful the Christmas spirit is still alive.

I am returning to the debate but this is phenomenal, crazy stuff. I do not know how so many could be appointed. Although the Minister was a long time in opposition and is here a lot longer than I am, he is a fast learner. He should talk to the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton. If he could create jobs like the Minister for Justice and Equality, the recession would be over and we could say goodbye to the IMF and European Union and send them home.

I am outlining my concerns. It is stated legal costs will decrease but there is no evidence of that whatsoever. Who will pay for all the jobs for the boys and girls? They do not come cheap. I am worried about that.

We have heard anecdotal evidence on various radio programmes about legal fees, etc., but at least the Taxing Master we had was independent. The Minister has now appointed Mr. Declan O'Neill — more power to him. I do not know him at all but the Minister obviously does. I am sure he knocked on a good few doors with him. When people make appeals and people approach the Taxing Master, will he be making telephone calls to the Minister or will it depend on——

We cannot be suggesting impropriety.

No, I would not.

I am just trying to expand on the openness and transparency of the appointment. While there is public procurement policy, the nod had to come from——

The Deputy is quite entitled to question that but he should not suggest the existence of practices of which we have no evidence.

I would not but I am just concerned about——

Please proceed.

While I do not know the legal costs adjudicator, Mr. Declan O'Neill, at all, I wish him well. I believe he appeared on some list of political donations quite recently.

The Deputy should not suggest impropriety unless he——

I am not; I am just stating a fact that was published quite recently.

I thank the Deputy.

It was not me, the Technical Group or Fianna Fáil that got it. Anyway, that is another matter.

I have concerns over the selection and appointment of members of the authority. There are numerous instances in which ministerial approval or consent is required, or in which ministerial involvement is provided for. It is all about the Minister. I wish him well in his office and wish him good health and longevity. What is being put in place is very serious. This type of model is unprecedented in any other country in so far as we have been able to ascertain. Why is this the case? This problem has been researched by the Bar Council, not me. Why are we so different from other countries? While we all accept there must be job creation, this is staggering.

The comparison with the appointment of judges by the Government is misplaced. This point was made by legal people, not me. There are concerns over the number of staff who will be employed, salaries, pensions and expenses that members of the profession will have to pay. Who will pay the staff? I do not know whether they will come under the Croke Park agreement, the Minister's agreement or otherwise. Regardless, they will have to be paid salaries and pensions, and PRSI contributions will have to be paid also.

The powers and functions of the authority give rise to fundamental concerns, including in respect of the authority's obligation to come up with proposals to advance issues such as the unification of the two branches of the profession. I refer to how and whether that should happen. I question the position on partnerships, including multidisciplinary partnerships, as referred to by my colleague from Sinn Féin. I have an excellent relationship with my solicitor, whom I know and trust. Most people have this experience. I compliment the vast majority of solicitors, who are beyond reproach. One can make an appointment with a solicitor locally but this could be very difficult if all legal practitioners were in big conglomerates. Will the legislation prevent people from gaining access to a solicitor rather than make it easier?

The document refers to direct access to barristers regarding contentious issues and the question of whether and how this could happen. The authors state they do not believe it would be in the interest of clients or in the public interest. We must all have recourse to barristers uaireanta. One's solicitor will give one a list of two or three and give advice, and that is how it should be. Irrespective of whether the issues concerned are contentious or straightforward, the provision will make the system very unhelpful for clients. Rather than going through one's solicitor, one will have to approach a bigger group and take who one is offered. The client may not be happy with this arrangement as he would normally take the solicitor's word on who is best to deal with the case in question, as the Minister knows. On being recommended a barrister by one's solicitor, one has an initial consultation and proceeds from there. One does one's best with the advice available. It is costly advice but it is worth it in the long run. Most of the practitioners are good.

The document states that notwithstanding the recommendations of the Competition Authority, no regulatory impact assessment appears to have been carried out which might demonstrate the cost benefit of the proposed new system. This is very telling. Why the undue haste? While the Minister made a commitment in the programme for Government, he made many more that never saw the light of day and probably never well. The abolition of the Seanad was one such commitment but I believe there have been changes of opinion in this regard in recent days.

It is only ten months since the change of Government, Mattie.

I am being patient; I am just wondering about the indecent haste.

Could the Deputy speak through the Chair, please?

Go raibh maith agat.

I am sorry for the interruptions, Deputy.

That is no problem. Ná habair é. I am used to it.

There is no assessment or briefing as to the costs, independence or means of operation of the new system. As colleagues stated, we need much time to consider this legislation. I hope there will be no guillotine because we need to study it carefully. We need to proceed slowly and be able to table amendments and discuss them at the Select Committee on Justice, Equality and Defence. However, the Government has a huge majority on the committees.

Costs are likely to increase considerably. The cost of practising at the bar will amount to an obstacle to entering the profession, as if matters were not bad enough. I know young men and women who are finding studying for the bar extremely expensive and difficult. They are hanging on but the new legislation will make finding employment more difficult when they are qualified. While fees will be taken from solicitors and barristers, the clients will ultimately pick up the cost. Costs are likely to increase for clients because of the bureaucratic structures and quangos being created even though the provisions appear to be in the public interest.

Will legal studies be restricted to an elite? We are ruled by an elite that does not understand what is happening on the ground. That can also apply to judges, for whom refresher courses should be provided. Will there be refresher courses for the bodies created in the Bill? Will their work and value for money be assessed?

The Competition Authority did not recommend direct access to barristers on contentious matters. I have been critical of the Competition Authority but clearly it has studied these matters. The Minister is introducing reforms in areas it did not even examine. I hope he will consult further with the Bar Council, which is concerned about the proposal on direct access. A study conducted by a regulatory authority argued that direct access for advice would destroy the system of independent referral, which is in the public interest and promotes access to justice. Direct access will squeeze out the smaller practitioners. Even small solicitors' businesses employ two or three staff in their offices. Direct access on contentious matters is not permitted in Northern Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, Australia or New Zealand. I accept the need for reform in this area but I do not know why we have to be so different.

In regard to the unification of two branches of the profession, we have spent a long time trying to unite different issues and parts of the country. This will not be an easy task. Do legal practitioners want their profession to be united? One can bring a horse to water but one cannot make it drink. There will be a lot of bucking and jumping before this is sorted out.

The Bar Council does not oppose peripheral measures in the Bill, such as making wigs and gowns optional. That is a light hearted but badly needed measure. However, it is concerned about more fundamental aspects of the Bill, not least the establishment of quangos. The Government promised to get rid of them.

We want to preserve local solicitors' offices because they pay rates, VAT, wages, light and heat and insurance. They are small businesses but they get recognition for what they do. We need them in our towns. I do not want to see more offices close or large companies intimidating people. The client-solicitor relationship is very important. Trust and ease of access are at the heart of this relationship. If solicitors are forced to amalgamate, the relationship will become more difficult for clients. There is no benefit to ordinary taxpayers who are at their limits in trying to survive.

I advise the Minister to make haste slowly on this Bill because serious issues arise. I know he is a wise man. It will not be easy and we need time to discuss the amendments to the Bill. We do not want to confine the system to the elites. Ordinary people who had to work their way through college should be allowed to join local practices to get experience before moving on to bigger firms. We do not have to throw out the baby with the bath water. The Bill makes sweeping changes that are not welcome and do not stand up to scrutiny.

There is no point in employing a CEO and staff in an organisation if it is not functional or does not benefit the public and the taxpayer. The Minister stated that the system carries a sense of mystique. We do not want any more mystique. We want transparency rather than three or four different bodies which meet behind closed doors. We have no clue what the new authority will cost or what it will be expected to do.

We need to go back to the drawing board and engage in further consultation. We should learn from the mistakes of the past rather than establish more quangos which have limited functions. I fear that we will be coming back to undo this legislation. That seldom happens. Commitments given in election manifestos can be changed but Acts are normally left on the Statute Book. We should listen to the Bar Council and practitioners around the country who have given a good service.

Litigation is a costly business. If one wants to take on a newspaper, as I did when I was a victim, it is prohibitive in the extreme. I could not believe the cost. When I inquired about it, the only answer I got was that it was a very difficult and serious area and was therefore very costly. In my case, I wanted an apology to restore my good name, but I also wanted the newspaper to make a donation to a charitable organisation. But no — all the money went one way. I did not see any of it. It went over my head, although, thankfully, the paper had to pay the costs. The amount the whole thing cost was phenomenal. Something could have been done for the public good; as well as clearing a person's name, the public interest should also be satisfied. I had demanded that a donation be made, but that was left outside the door. It was just the newspaper's own costs and boy, were they strong. There were no meetings, only phone calls and e-mails. The apology appeared in the newspaper, at huge expense to the paper — and rightly so — but the public interest would have been better served if it had made some kind of donation to charity in recognition of the grave miscarriage of justice that was the error that it printed.

This area needs to be examined as well, but I do not see any mention of it in the Bill. I know the Bill covers the wider brief of all law, but the specific area of defamation law is particularly costly and it is difficult to obtain justice. At present, one can get the barrister of one's choice, but this option will be taken away from people. Instead, there will be a list system, and a person may have to accept somebody he does not have a relationship with or is not easy with.

I wish the Ceann Comhairle a happy Christmas.

I wish you all a very happy Christmas and prosperous new year.

Debate adjourned.
The Dáil adjourned at 1.30 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 11 January 2012.