I welcome the Minister to deal with this very important legislation, the title of which includes the words "legal" and "services". I commend the Minister for bringing the Bill before the House and his willingness to engage with Members. Deputy Joe McHugh was correct to state there was anxiety among members of the legal profession, but I know the Minister is willing to engage and listen to all sides of the debate, which is how it should be. I hope this applies across the board.
I do not have a vested interest in the legislation, as I am not a member of the legal profession and do not desire to take silk. I speak as an ordinary Member of the House who wants to see change and reform. Beginning with this premise, most reasonable people want to see change in the legal profession. Confidence has been eroded in the legal profession for a variety of reasons one of which is the costs and length of the tribunal. The practices and procedures of the legal profession have not evolved to the same extent as those in other sections of society. We have seen a significant increase in the number of complaints against legal practitioners which has been to the detriment of the public and the majority of honest, law-abiding citizens and practitioners. The legal profession, in the main, carries out great work and is very accessible but there is a desire for change even among those in the profession.
I welcome the objectives the Minister has set as the bedrock of this Bill. It is important, in terms of our legal services and system, that we have confidence in the profession, that consumer interests are at the centre of the legal services market and that we have an open and transparent regulatory process.
I am open to correction but I am concerned that many people outside the legal profession see it as being elite, out of touch and beyond the reach of many because of the high fees charged. I hope that perception will be changed as a result of this Bill and that we will restore confidence, restore morale among the practitioners and make essential legal services accessible.
The current model of regulation in the legal profession is an outdated version of self-regulation. The main lesson we should have learned from the financial crisis in the banking system and from every other systemic problem we have come across is that self-regulation and light touch regulation does not work and is not in the interests of the wider society. Vested interests cannot and should not be permitted to act as both advocates and regulators of the same group. It has not worked, does not work and will not work in this case either. I hope this Bill will end that era of self-regulation.
I very much welcome the Minister's proposals to establish the legal services regulatory authority. Despite all of what we are hearing, that body must have regard to protecting and promoting the public interest and the interests of consumers regarding the provision of legal services, and promote competition in the provision of legal services. That is a welcome move which will assist in re-establishing confidence in the legal profession.
We must examine the issues of access and outdated practices, which have not evolved to the same extent as in other sections of society. Restrictive practices which prevent direct access to barristers, force clients to instruct the number a barristers and require clients to pay junior counsel two thirds of what the senior counsel is paid do not operate in the interests of justice but in the vested interest of the professions. I welcome the proposals in the Bill to do away with restrictive practices and make it easier for people to access legal services.
The changes are in the interest of consumers but they are also in the wider interest of the profession. Abolishing these practices has support among lawyers. I note that a former Chief Justice, Mr. Ronan Keane, has expressed support for some of these changes. However, as Deputy McHugh stated, concerns have been expressed about the Bill by members of the profession. I have been contacted about it also. Many solicitors and a number of barristers have contacted me to express concerns about some elements of the Bill. They are concerned that the proposals will vest too much regulatory power in the Minister and that the independence of the legal practitioners will be undermined. We must pay close attention to those concerns. We must ensure we do not undermine the privileged lawyer-client relationship which is fundamental to our system of justice and to the fairness inherent in it.
Equally, we must distinguish between the independence of the lawyer-client relationship and who is responsible for regulation. Government is elected by the people, despite Deputy McGrath's utterances, to implement legislation, which includes establishing mechanisms for regulation across the legal, financial, health and other sectors. While it is expected that certain interests will be opposed to the proposed changes in regulation, that does not make them wrong. Regulation is essential but it must operate in the wider public interest, and I am sure the Minister agrees with that principle.
The Bill proposes fundamental changes to our legal services. Essentially, it proposes to establish a new legal order and do away with a system that has been in place for a long time. The reasons that is necessary are, in many cases, because of erosion of public confidence but also because of an increased number of complaints, the difficulties faced by many lawyers practising in small country offices, and to fulfil requirements under the EU-IMF deal which is contained in the Bill.
It is important that the new system being proposed has the full confidence of the public, Members of this House and the legal profession who will work every day in that system. It is important also that we proceed carefully with this Bill and that the Minister and the Government continue to engage not just with vested interests but also with those who express deeply held and legitimate concerns. We must work to determine if the concerns can be addressed in this legislation and that it can, if necessary, incorporate some changes at a later date.
We must not deviate from the intent of ending self-regulation and restrictive practices which do not operate in the interest of the consumers of legal services. I commend the Minister on his approach and hope he will continue to listen.