Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Questions (483)

Joe McHugh

Question:

483. Deputy Joe McHugh asked the Minister for Justice and Equality with reference to the Legal Services Bill, if he will outline his vision to increased competition in the provision of legal services here; his views on the envisaged role of legal executives in ensuring greater value and competition for citizens; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12881/13]

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Written answers (Question to Justice)

The Legal Services Regulation Bill 2011, which has completed Second Stage and is due to commence Committee Stage during the coming Session, gives legislative expression to the commitment in the Programme for Government 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". Furthermore, as a sectoral objective under the EU/IMF/ECB Troika Memorandum of Understanding, it supports the objectives of structural reform, national competitiveness and early economic recovery, building on the relevant recommendations of the Legal Costs Working Group and the Competition Authority. The Bill is, therefore, a key component of the Government's strategy to reduce legal costs in this country by way of increasing our competitiveness, both sectorally and nationally.

The Legal Services Regulation Bill makes extensive provision, particularly in Part 9, for a new and enhanced legal costs regime that will bring greater transparency to how legal costs are charged along with a better balance between the interests of legal practitioners and those of their clients. The Bill sets out, for the first time in legislation, a series of Legal Costs Principles. These are contained in Schedule One and enumerate the various matters that may be taken into account if disputed costs are submitted for adjudication. These cost transparency measures will apply to barristers as well as to solicitors.

The Bill also provides that a new Office of the Legal Costs Adjudicator will deal with disputes about legal costs – at present 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 with greater transparency. The Office will be empowered to prepare Legal Costs Guidelines. It will establish and maintain a publicly accessible Register of Determinations which will include the outcomes and reasons for its determinations about disputed legal costs.

In addition, the Bill facilitates the setting up of new business models for the profession, in line with some of the innovations and advances made in other common law jurisdictions. These new or "alternative" business structures will be optional in parallel to the current and more traditional forms of legal practise and their introduction will, as provided in the Bill, follow a process of public consultation. In other provisions the Bill lifts existing restrictions on direct professional access to a barrister and on barristers who share premises or costs from advertising themselves as such a group. The Bill also allows that a barrister in employment may provide legal services for his or her employer. The Bill, therefore, contains numerous measures aimed at opening up the provision of legal services to more competitive legal service models building on the enormous advances that have been made in supporting business technologies.

In relation to the role of legal executives, and as I have set out in previous Replies, the Legal Services Regulation Bill does not make any provision in relation to the role or status of legal executives nor is any such provision envisaged. As the Deputy will be aware, a number of proposals have been circulated in this regard by the Irish Institute of Legal Executives Ltd on behalf of its members. However, these are very far-reaching and represent a major and substantive departure beyond the currently recognised status and functions of a legal executive in this jurisdiction. They relate inter alia to "a right of audience in the District and Circuit Courts, before tribunals and, subject to review, subsequently in all courts", and to the eligibility of members for quasi-judicial and judicial appointments (e.g as District Court judges or as members of Tribunals). These proposals also draw heavily from the regulatory and practise models of England and Wales which have a distinct history and do not always correspond to those of our jurisdiction nor to those set out under current Government policy in the Legal Services Regulation Bill 2011.

While recognising that there may be additional benefits and efficiencies to be found for consumers and for the legal services sector in a more developed role for "legal executives" in the future, the very far-reaching proposals being made on their behalf at this time lie beyond the scope of the Legal Services Regulation Bill. They impinge on fundamental issues of substance including in relation to the courts and the judiciary. Such matters will, therefore, need to be considered separately on their own merits and in their own right, while others may come to be considered in due course by the new Legal Services Regulatory Authority. I would also point out that it remains open to legal executives, who are so minded, to pursue the career of solicitor or barrister by way of capitalising on their acquired legal knowledge and experience.