Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 1 Jun 1999

Vol. 505 No. 6

Solicitors (Amendment) Bill, 1998: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

In opening my remarks, I declare an interest in the Solicitors (Amendment) Bill, 1998. I am solicitor and it is appropriate, in these days of openness and transparency, that one should declare one's interests. I wonder if the Minister has done so because we share a common interest in this regard.

Another matter I should declare is that I have always been against touts and ambulance chasers as far as the legal profession is concerned. Because I am so much against touts and ambulance chasers, I had grave reservations about the approach adopted by the Minister's Government ten years ago when, as a result of a populist movement, a huge effort was made to get the legal profession to repeal its ban on advertising. Effectively, what we are talking about in relation to this Bill is the need to restrict advertising by the legal profession, a move which has led to the development of the "compo"culture which afflicts this country. That came about because of the response of the Fianna Fáil Government ten years ago. It insisted on the legal profession lifting its restriction or ban on advertising.

When I actively practised law I was satisfied that such a ban on advertising existed and felt there was no need to lift it. The Law Society, however, did so under the cloud of a threat from the Fianna Fáil Government ten years ago that if it did not drop the prohibition, the Government would introduce legislation to ensure it did so. That is a warning to us all and shows how dangerous it is to lead from behind with the populist view. The populist view at the time was that there should be advertising. I do not know who generated it, but it was there and the Fianna Fáil Government fell for it, led from behind, followed it through and forced the Law Society to lift the ban on advertising. If nothing else, it shows that these old traditions should not be cast aside lightly. I am not saying they should be set in stone and not changed, but the consequences of change should be thought through before pressure of the type exerted on that occasion is applied.

The Bill should have been introduced a long time ago; it is much too late to try to shut the stable door. Much damage has been caused and the compensation culture about which we complain has been given a major fillip because of that ill-advised move by the Fianna Fáil Government ten years ago. I am in favour of a more restricted approach to advertising, but before I go into that in detail, I will raise something which should be included in the Bill but is not. The Law Society has 6,800 members, and we are talking about amending legislation which covers that profession. I draw to the Minister's attention the fact that his Government recently produced an advertisement headed: "Opportunities on Equality Issues". The advertisement mentioned that a new infrastructure is being put in place to underpin employment equality and equal status law and for that purpose it is seeking a legal adviser. The supreme irony of the advertisement for a legal adviser to help underpin employment equality and equal status law is that the 6,800 solicitors are excluded from applying for that position. I invite the Minister to give me an explanation or excuse for that provision.

If we are talking about equality and a legal adviser to deal with equality and to advise on how the Office of the Director of Equality Investigations and the Equality Authority should oper ate, surely, as a starting point, the position itself should spring from an equal point whereby the 80 per cent of lawyers who are members of the solicitors profession should at least be allowed to apply for that position? A complaint has been lodged about that and the Law Society has held a considered view for many years that the exclusion of solicitors from appointments as legal advisers in a number of Departments is contrary to public interest and a relic of history.

To exclude solicitors from consideration for the position of legal adviser is a form of discrimination without any objective justification. I take the opportunity of dealing with this Bill to raise this issue with the Minister. It is an outrageous reflection on the branch of the profession to which we both belong. As I said, the supreme irony is that it relates to the position of legal adviser in new bodies which are supposed to underpin the approach of this Government to equality issues. It is a bad start and the Minister should put that right immediately and have this obnoxious objectionable advertisement withdrawn and the position re-advertised

The background to the Bill is the pressure applied ten years ago to get the Law Society to drop its prohibition on advertising. It is quite clear that a bad job was done at that time and that what emerged from that popular movement was a hasty approach which led to the development of the compensation culture. I am not sure whether the genie can be put back in the bottle, although I am very happy to co-operate on behalf of the Opposition in the effort to try to do so.

Enormous bills are arising for employers, local authorities – where the time limit under the Statute of Limitations was six months – and the State as a result of the compensation culture which has developed over recent years. This results not just from the withdrawal of the ban on advertising but also from the amendment to the Statute of Limitations in 1992. It is very easy to present a popular case for such developments, but I would have liked much more time to have been set aside to consider the effects of such legislation, which are now before us. There are claims against the State under the general heading of Army deafness which could result in a final minimum cost of £1,000 million. Was such a possibility considered when the changes I referred to were being made? I have always been opposed to rushed legislation, but am also very much opposed to legislation which is not examined in terms of its consequences in the future. The consequence of the Army deafness claims is that the 70 or 80 members of the Garda Síochána are following the same trail. This would not have happened but for the amendments to regulations and legislation introduced ten years ago.

Undoubtedly the fact that there are law firms which advertise in newspapers, on radio and in other ways highlighting the benefits of claiming against anyone where there is a chance of a bob has encouraged the compensation culture. Adver tisements which included the claim "no foal, no fee" clearly encouraged the compensation culture and acted as a major inducement for people to take claims which they otherwise would not have taken. If people have a just claim they should be entitled to pursue it and are entitled to the best legal advice and support in bringing a claim for personal injury. However, the problem arises in two areas. The first is where people automatically assume that because they suffer from something or have an accident they must be entitled to claim from someone. Such an assumption is not provided for in legislation, something which should be made very clear to people. The difficulty is that the type of advertising which has been evidenced over the years has encouraged people to forget about the legislation and to claim, when they clearly have no grounds for doing so, on the basis of getting a settlement for an amount of money which they are not entitled to under the law. The second problem is that people have been encouraged to unduly inflate claims and present injuries as being worse than they are. I do not approve of this and we should be prepared to curb such practice in every way we can.

The Bill puts in place what will hopefully prove to be effective controls, which should have existed years ago, on the nature and extent of advertising by solicitors, particularly in the area of personal injuries. It lays down a procedure in terms of what can be included in solicitors' advertisements. As a consequence it will hopefully highlight the approach adopted by most colleagues in the profession whom I have met and the ethics of the honourable profession which goes back over the centuries, and take us away from the money grabbing, ambulance chasing touts who have despoiled the name of the profession in recent years. It will ensure that those falling into this latter category who brought the profession into disrepute will be reined in.

Hopefully the kind of curbs and controls which should have been put in place ten years ago will now be effective. I am not entirely certain that the Bill will achieve the desired result, partly because of the culture and tradition which has developed over the past ten years and partly because it is very difficult to rein in an approach which has been allowed to become accepted as commonplace. However, it is the best that can be done at this time and for that reason Fine Gael, despite the damage which has been caused over the past ten years, is prepared to support the Bill.

There are probably many other areas in terms of the compensation culture which need to be dealt with just as expeditiously. We hear all sorts of talk, particularly from the Minister for Defence, about the need to set up compensation tribunals etc. to deal with the enormous number of claims being made against him. However, it is a case of much talk and very little action. I hope that if such an approach is adopted there will not be the undue delay which arose in relation to the production of this Bill.

The Bill is an improvement on current legislation and for that reason we will support it. I do not think it will totally remedy the damage which has been done over the years. On the other hand perhaps it may help restrict the growth and development of the compensation culture. If it does so it will bring enormous benefits to the economy. I am aware of the additional costs of enormous claims to business in recent years and am cognisant of the insurance premia which have to be paid by various professions, not least the legal profession and the medical profession. In my young days as a solicitor claims were virtually unheard of. However, claims have now become commonplace and as a consequence the insurance premia paid by doctors, for example, are enormous, reaching £30,000, £40,000 or £50,000 per year for some consultants.

The Bill is too late and is perhaps too little, but we are prepared to support it.

I am not a solicitor, unlike my esteemed colleagues. I have always been impressed by the amount of study and work solicitors must undergo to qualify and it is a profession we should treat with the greatest of respect. We depend on solicitors and barristers to keep the wheels of our advanced society moving properly. Therefore, it is with a measure of regret that the Minister must introduce a Bill to regulate the actions of a small number of unscrupulous opportunists. I was amazed to see some solicitors advertise for business in doctors' surgeries. Injured people sitting in waiting rooms see these advertisements which state they have the right to claim and get a great deal of money.

People refer time and again to the compensation culture in our society. As a person who worked with the youth, I know this culture is harmful to society. Some parents groups are afraid to set up playgrounds for their children. Local authorities have had to close playgrounds for fear of injury and litigation. I welcome the Bill from the point of view that I hope it will start a debate about the compensation culture. I commend the Minister on introducing it for that reason alone.

The Bill seeks to set up effective controls on the nature and extent of advertising by solicitors, especially in the area of personal injuries. People are often awarded huge damages in cases settled out of court. We know of cases where people have gone to their bank managers with letters from solicitors stating the bank should lend them money because they are going to court the following week and will receive substantial awards, that the cases will be settled out of court and the solicitors will stand over them. It is better than winning the lotto. Therefore, instead of people getting lump sums, perhaps the Minister would consider providing that such people receive monthly payments. People might then not be so quick to go to court to win the lotto, as it were. It is just a suggestion. If a person recovers from the injury, he or she might not need the money. Perhaps people could be assessed at a future date to see if their injuries have improved. We need to examine the outcome of litigation, the amount of money being awarded and how it is awarded. Is it right that people should receive massive lump sums at the one time? Perhaps the Minister will examine that aspect of the matter. I am sure he has already thought of this. The advertisements to which I referred stir up business in a way which, according to the Minister, is "in your face". I liked that remark. That brings the whole profession into disrepute.

The Bill lists a number of terms. What is meant by "bad taste"? Surely that is a subjective term. That which is in bad taste according to one person may not be so according to another. Who will adjudicate on whether an advertisement "is likely to bring the solicitors' profession into disrepute" or "reflects unfavourably on other solicitors"? These terms are a little ambiguous; perhaps the Bill needs to be more specific. I agree with the Minister that advertisements should not be "false or misleading in any respect". With regard to an advertisement which "is published in an inappropriate location", I hope the Minister will set out examples of those locations to tighten up the legislation.

Some people who suffer genuine injury, loss and hurt are afraid to claim, contact a solicitor or to go to court because they do not want to be associated with the compensation culture. That is another outcome of this culture.

Some solicitors are unscrupulous and opportunists. A few make mistakes and there are some, like in every profession, who are not the best. What recourse does a member of the public have to a redress of wrongs? Some Deputies suggested the appointment of an ombudsman for the legal profession. If people feel they have been wronged, that they did not get a hearing or were not treated with respect or dignity, they should be able to make a complaint which will be followed up for the good of the majority of people in the profession. Perhaps the Minister will consider that, if not in this Bill, at a later stage. It is important that ordinary people have recourse to such a facility.

How will we inform people with genuine cases of their right to seek compensation if we restrict advertising? We must be careful in that regard. Is there a danger that the Bill might prevent people from being informed that they may take their cases to court? That might seem strange in the culture in which we operate but, if we restrict advertising, honest people who suffer injury, hurt or damage may not even know they may seek compensation.

For many people, going to court is a daunting prospect. Perhaps we should make the family courts and other courts more user-friendly. I know moves are being made at present whereby people may discuss and debate with their solicitors in privacy and comfort. That is the least we can provide in this day and age.

In the Cork East constituency there are great moves afoot to upgrade the courthouse in Youghal which has been in a deplorable condition for years. I commend those involved on the work they are doing because it is badly needed. The judge had to move out of the court for a number of months because of the condition of the courthouse. I encourage the departmental officials to make sure that work progresses as speedily as possible.

Some people's knowledge of the legal profession is limited to what is happening at the tribunals and the massive fees of a small number of people there. It is the taxpayers who are paying that money. Why should people who may have done great wrong in the past cost the State millions of pounds when, for example, there are hospital waiting lists and 8,000 people waiting for orthodontic treatment at St. Finbarr's Hospital in Cork? Perhaps we should consider a cheaper and more effective way of dealing with these issues in the future.

The whole area of insurance and claims impinges greatly on car drivers, particularly young drivers. Many young people cannot afford car insurance as it is very costly. We await constructive Government measures to assist in reducing car insurance costs for young drivers. That should be done. Cars are essential nowadays to travel to and from work and so on.

High insurance costs are linked to compensation payments. I wonder whether it is proper to pay out large sums of money at one time. Perhaps payments could be staggered over a number of months or years, together with ongoing assessments. That might limit the amount of money paid out and the number of claims made.

Another area which gives great cause for concern is the cost of fire insurance for houses. Although I am moving away slightly from the content of the Bill, all of these matters are linked to claims, compensation and insurance. If a house burns down, it may not be adequately covered by insurance and the occupants may not be able to rebuild it. People cannot afford the high cost of house insurance which arises as a result of current spiralling, unprecedented house prices. Higher housing costs are a measure of success in our society but we must manage that success. Deputies on all sides of the House have alluded to the problem of high house prices, especially as they affect young people.

While we welcome the Bill, we must do everything we can to tackle the compensation culture. That is not to say we should excuse shoddy workmanship or negligence. It is no longer acceptable to say "it will be all right on the night". We must ensure high standards across the board. Local authorities must ensure that footpaths are properly maintained in order to prevent people falling on them. If we do not tackle the compensation culture, the introduction of this Bill will be akin to closing the door after the horse has bolted.

The Bill needs to be tidied up somewhat. I do not know how some of the terms such as "in bad taste" will be pinned down. I suggested that an ombudsman be appointed for the legal profession, and perhaps the Minister will consider that at a later stage.

The compensation culture affects schools, youth clubs and others and is costing a great deal of money. People cannot afford to turn around without incurring huge insurance costs. I welcome the Bill to which the Fine Gael Party will table amendments on Committee Stage.

I thank the Deputies who contributed to the debate and appreciate the general welcome given to the Bill from all sides of the House. The debate has been a wide-ranging one which centred on the primary focus of the Bill, namely, the need for better control of particular types of advertising by solicitors. It also touched on a variety of issues such as the compensation culture and the difficulties that culture causes for local authorities, insurance companies, the medical profession and others.

The content of particular advertisements read into the record by Deputies Higgins, McGrath and Foley and the further references to such advertisements by Deputies Roche and Hanafin provide classic examples of the "in your face" and sometimes personalised advertising to which I referred earlier in the debate. Deputies readily identified with the sentiments I expressed about those advertisements.

When the Bill becomes law, that type of advertising will no longer be permissible. The Bill aims to ensure that the nature of any advertising engaged in by solicitors is appropriate and is not in bad taste, objectionable or of a nature which induces people to engage in unnecessary litigation. At the same time, I am conscious of the need to ensure that members of the public who may wish to obtain the services of a solicitor are in a position to make informed choices on the basis of accurate, factual information on the range of services available to them.

The Bill provides that the information contained in solicitors' advertisements may include basic material such as name, address, telephone and facsimile numbers, place of business, academic and professional qualifications and legal experience, factual information on the legal services provided and particulars of any charge or fee payable for the provision of any specified legal advice. In addition, the Bill allows the use of the words "personal injuries" in an advertisement as part of the factual information contained therein.

I am satisfied that the Bill's provisions will succeed in controlling the kind of brash publicity, including personal publicity and touting for business, which has become evident in recent years. The Bill is designed in the public interest and will lead to a stricter code of advertising for solicitors. A good deal of that code will now be enshrined in primary legislation. Some of the details will continue to be supplemented by way of secondary legislation, namely through regulations made by the Law Society with the concurrence of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

Deputies raised a number of issues in the course of a very interesting debate. Deputy Higgins expressed the view that the 'saver' in section 3 of the Bill, under which the Bill would not apply to advertisements which are published within three months of the date of the Bill's commencement, should be deleted. If we were to remove this three month period of grace, one possible effect is that advertising restrictions would become effective immediately upon commencement of the Bill.

Section 8(2) of the Bill is also relevant in this regard. The effect of section 3 and section 8(2) is that the legislation would begin to apply to advertisements published at a maximum of six months after the passing of the Bill. Section 8(2) provides that the Bill should come into operation three months after its passing or on such earlier day as may be appointed by ministerial order. My intention is to bring the Bill into operation as soon as the regulations which the Law Society is required to make are ready and as soon as I am in a position to consent to them. It is certain, therefore, that a maximum three month time limit has been placed on this stage of the process. The relevant commencement order will be made as quickly as possible within that time period.

Any person affected by the provisions of the Bill is entitled to be given notice which is both adequate and definitive, of a change of this importance. For that reason, section 3 provides for the second stage of the process, that is, that the Bill shall apply to advertisements published three months after the date of its commencement. Thus, those who are affected by its provisions will be able to make their arrangements within that three month period in the certain knowledge that the Bill will take effect in relation to advertisements published as and from a particular date. I am satisfied this is a reasonable basis on which to proceed and it will help to remove grounds for any challenge to the provisions of the Bill.

Deputy Higgins also referred to the need to urgently amend the Statute of Limitations (Amendment) Act, 1991, to reduce the limitation period for personal injury actions against public authorities. The Statute of Limitations, 1957, provides a period of three years for the commencement of personal injuries proceedings, beyond which the proceedings may be struck out because they were not commenced in time. The statute also provides that the three year period shall not be regarded as starting to run where the plaintiff is under a legal disability, for example, not of full age. These provisions are by way of exception to the general rule relating to periods of limitation for actions founded on tort which is six years from the date on which the cause of action accrued.

The Statute of Limitations (Amendment) Act, 1991, amended the law so that the three year limitation period runs from the date on which the person injured discovers, or could reasonably have discovered, that the injury occurred, if this date is later than the act or omission leading to the injury.

The policy considerations which gave rise to the discoverability rule in the 1991 Act was that there could be an injustice which could, in certain cases, result in a person losing his or her right of action for personal injuries before that person was in a position to learn that such a course of action existed. The Act removed constitutional doubts at the time about existing law and it substantially implemented the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission regarding claims in respect of latent personal injuries. If the law in 1991 had not been enacted, cases such as the recent hepatitis C cases would have been statute barred.

While I have no proposals to change the law relating to personal injuries claims against public authorities, the law is kept under review on an ongoing basis.

Deputy Higgins also referred to the Incorporated Law Society's new requirement that law graduates must pass the law society's entrance examination prior to being admitted to the professional training system. The matter raised by the Deputy does not come within the scope of the provisions of the Bill. By way of information to the Deputy, however, it was in the light of the High Court decision in the Bloomer case which was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1996 that the Law Society decided to require persons to sit its entrance examination and to abolish the system of exemption which had applied to graduates of certain colleges.

The Law Society has informed me that, as a consequence of the Bloomer judgment, it would not be possible to reintroduce the old exemption system and that an entrance examination must be in place to meet the practical considerations arising from that judgment.

Making regulations in the education and training of solicitors is a matter for the Law Society. My predecessor as Minister for Justice concurred in making regulations in June 1997, and it is those regulations which currently apply. As I understand it, the regulations already make certain allowances for the position of graduates but not to the extent of exempting them from the entrance examination.

There is further litigation pending before the courts which relates to the examination, and the outcome of that case may have a further bearing on the issue.

I was asked in the course of the debate whether I had any plans to regulate advertising by para-legals. I am pleased to inform the House that section 2 covers such cases. That section provides that a person who is not a solicitor should not publish or cause to be published an advertisement relating to claims for personal injuries which expressly or impliedly undertakes to provide a specified service of a legal nature for a fee, gain or reward which is directly related to the provision of that service, and where the service could otherwise be provided by a solicitor. The advertising controls provided for in section 1 in relation to personal injuries apply, therefore, by virtue of section 2 to non-solicitors. Given the extent to which some people who are not solicitors advertise services of a legal nature in the area of personal injuries, it is only reasonable that statutory controls which apply to solicitors in this area should also apply to people who are not solicitors.

Any such person who breaches these provisions may be the subject of an application by the law society to the High Court under section 7 for an order of prohibition.

Deputy McManus expressed concern that the definition of the words "inappropriate location" contained in the new subsection (10) of section 71 of the Solicitors Act, 1954, as proposed to be inserted by section 1 of the Bill, may be too restrictive. She suggested that what is at issue is the content of the advertisements, not their location. She also indicated that the definition of "inappropriate location" might prohibit local bodies such as schools from seeking advertisements from solicitors in school journals and the like.

The position under the Bill is that a solicitor will be prohibited from publishing or otherwise promoting his or her practice in an inappropriate location. An inappropriate location is defined to include a hospital, clinic, doctor's surgery, funeral home or cemetery. The Bill, as framed, will allow advertising in school magazines or journals produced by local organisations provided it complies with the requirements of the Bill.

In so far as location is concerned, however, I wish to emphasise that any form of promotion of or touting for business by solicitors in the vicinity of, say, a funeral home would be prohibited under the Bill. The question as to whether a funeral home could give general information on the desirability of persons settling their affairs by way of taking out probate is a separate matter and does not come within the scope of the Bill. I suppose the fact that solicitors will be prohibited from advertising in a cemetery will give a whole new resonance to the phrase that nobody wants to be the richest man in the graveyard.

Deputy McGrath referred to section 71 (8) of the Solicitors Act, 1954, that is proposed to be inserted by section 1 of the Bill. The subsection would, subject to conditions, allow a solicitor who has a specialist knowledge in a prescribed area of law or practice to advertise that specialist knowledge. The Deputy wishes to know how the Law Society will decide on such expertise. He indicated that queries were brought to his attention by some solicitors who believe too much control may be given to the Law Society in this area.

The Bill in this instance simply repeals and re-enacts a provision in the law that already exists. It will be open to the Law Society to spell out the details in this area. Subsection (8) will operate if the Law Society makes regulations on the precise manner in which a solicitor may satisfy the society of specialist knowledge. In spelling out those details, the society will have to take account of other provisions in section 71 which constrain advertising in general.

Deputies queried the Government's proposals to tackle the mounting legal costs involved in personal injuries cases against the State. The Government's legislative programme, as announced by the Chief Whip on 15 April 1999, contains a commitment to bring forward a Bill to handle claims for compensation for personal injury and property damage against the State. The heads of that Bill have been prepared in the Department of Finance.

In so far as Army deafness cases are concerned, the Minister for Defence has indicated that he favours an out of court settlement procedure and that he has asked his Department to prepare proposals for Government for such a scheme, taking into account levels of compensation being awarded by the courts in such cases. The Minister has indicated that the work is in full progress and will be influenced by the outcome of pending legislation before the courts.

In so far as levels of insurance costs are concerned, some Deputies will be aware of ongoing work in this area. The Minister with responsibility for science, technology and commerce has asked a special working group, established in 1997 on foot of a consultancy report on the evaluation of insurance costs, to continue its work on the alternative methods of delivering personal injury compensation. This is a matter to which Deputy Stanton referred in his contribution. The working group is currently researching and evaluating alternative systems for compensating accident victims in other countries and aims to submit its report to the Minister in July.

Deputy Jim O'Keeffe referred to the number of gardaí making claims for hearing loss. Eighty six gardaí and retired members of the Force have lodged claims for hearing loss against the State since 1982. Seventy two of these cases were lodged since March 1996, two were withdrawn and nine have been settled. One of the cases concerned an incident in which mortars found in a bunker were detonated. The remainder concerned members who underwent firearms training and practice some time ago. These cases have been settled at an average cost of £29,000.

Gardaí are not exposed to gunfire to the same extent as soldiers and only members of specialist units would have any appreciable exposure to it. Even this exposure would be low compared with soldiers. Estimates of the risk of damage to hearing are generally based on average exposure over a period of weeks and years. Reports commissioned by the Garda indicate that the necessary hearing protection is in existence to protect against the possibility of hearing loss to members of the Force who would be exposed to noise, and also complies with legislation concerning the protection of workers from risks related to the exposure to noise at work.

The requirement for gardaí to wear adequate protection when undergoing firearms training has been rigidly enforced since the early 1980s. While the scale of the problem is not anything like in the Defence Forces, officials in the Department have been in discussions with the Garda Síochána, the Attorney General's office, the Chief State Solicitor's office and the Department of Defence on this issue. The problem is being monitored carefully and arrangements are in place to ensure that every claim is thoroughly investigated.

Deputy O'Keeffe also referred to an advertisement for a post on the Equality Authority. The legal advisers to be recruited from the competitions recently advertised by the Civil Service Commission will be the primary source, similar to the situation regarding legal assistants in the office of the Attorney General, for in-house legal opinion and advisory work relating to the interpretation of the new equality legislation as well as case law. As such, the work for which the legal advisers are sought is in the domain of activity normally reserved for barristers and for which they are suitable because of their training and work experience. In the circumstances I consider the qualifications sought for the post in question to be appropriate.

Deputy Stanton referred to the issue of what constitutes bad taste. Existing regulations made by the law society prohibit advertising which is in bad taste and the Bill enshrines that prohibition in primary legislation. The ultimate arbiter of what constitutes bad taste in these cases will be the disciplinary tribunal appointed by the President of the High Court which considers complaints of misconduct against solicitors.

The Deputy also referred to the possibility of an ombudsman for the legal profession. Under regulations made in 1997 the Law Society established the scheme for the examination of investigations by an adjudicator of written complaints concerning the handling by the society of complaints concerning solicitors. The adjudicator has furnished his first annual report which I welcome and which comments favourably on the level of co-operation afforded to the adjudicator by the Law Society. The society has indicated that it intends to use the recommendations in the report to further improve the quality of its complaints handling procedures.

During the period under consideration the adjudicator reviewed 59 cases, of which he referred nine to the society's professional practice directorate for the purposes of seeking additional information at the specific request of complainants. These reviews were expeditiously handled by the directorate and responses to the queries were furnished in writing to complainants. A small number of these cases are ongoing.

Following a redirection by the adjudicator's office, one case was the subject of a referral of a solicitor to the disciplinary tribunal appointed by the President of the High Court. The adjudicator pointed out that, in a number of cases, he was being asked to decide on two absolutely contradictory positions. Many of these cases are not documented and, therefore, render him powerless to determine fault.

Twenty five cases were outside the adjudicator's remit, mainly because they were not made within three years of the Law Society's determination on the matter. Other cases were the subject of a court determination or have been referred to the disciplinary tribunal.

One of the most striking aspects of the report is the number of solicitors, more than one third, who failed to attend meetings of the registrar's committee, despite having been requested to do so in advance. The registrar's committee of the Law Society indicated that it intends to adopt new procedures to deal with this difficulty. It has decided that a failure to attend before a committee meeting without reasonable excuse will be regarded as prima facie misconduct and render the solicitor liable to be referred to the disciplinary tribunal on this ground alone.

In addition, I intend to introduce an amendment to the Bill on Committee Stage to address this problem. The amendment follows consultations on the matter between my Department and the society. The failure of a solicitor to attend a registrar's committee does not preclude the committee from taking further action, such as, for example, referring the matter to the disciplinary tribunal but it indicates, as the adjudicator points out, that some solicitors have scant regard for the authority of the society and the rights of clients.

The procedures which have been put in place by the society achieve the objective of independent adjudication but I will keep the matter under review in light of further experience of their operation. The procedures are new and it is reasonable to monitor how they operate over a fair period of time.

It is important to recognise, as many Deputies have done, that since the Law Society allowed advertising by solicitors in 1988 for the first time, it is the exception rather than the rule that solicitors engage in forms of advertising which are clearly unacceptable. Nevertheless, the perception is that large numbers of cases in the personal injuries area are driven by over-the-top advertising. While the conduct of many solicitors in so far as advertising is concerned has been, and continues to be, above reproach, it is evident that a better code on advertising should exist. The Bill is a reasonable response that is in keeping with the need to protect the overall integrity of the solicitors' profession among the public they serve.

I thank Deputies for their contributions to what has been a valuable and informed debate and look forward to discussing the Bill further on Committee Stage.

Question put and agreed to.