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.