That issue can be examined on Committee Stage. There is a specific provision in the legislation which deals with the question of whether there has been unreasonable delay in either the Bar Council or the Law Society in the investigation of a complaint, and I understand that under the legislation the ombudsman can intervene in those circumstances. The ombudsman also has full power to review the investigation that has already been done by the Law Society. The ombudsman is being put in a strong position. I agree with Deputy Ring. A facility long needed in complaints against the profession is that there be an independent transparent mechanism for investigating solicitors or, indeed, members of the Bar who do not perform their duties in a professional manner, whether in the conduct of their practice, the dispatch of business or the handling, in the case of a solicitor, of clients' funds.
I thank Deputies for their wide-ranging contributions on what is a wide-ranging Bill. Some of the contributions were at a detailed level and those issues can be dealt with on Committee Stage, but I want to address some of the more important points made in the course of the debate.
The Minister, Deputy McDowell, wants to record his appreciation for the general welcome given to the content of the Bill on all sides of the House. I agree with Deputies that the provisions in the Bill are generally necessary and welcome. Where differences of view have been expressed on some of the details, they can be explored further on Committee Stage.
Deputies gave a general welcome for the establishment of the office of the legal services ombudsman. I noted that most Deputies are supportive of the proposals of the Minister and I now want to address some of the more general points raised in connection with the ombudsman.
Deputy Jim O'Keeffe and Deputy Howlin drew attention to the rising numbers entering the legal profession. Currently, there are over 7,300 practising solicitors and over 1,900 members of the Bar in the State. This rise in numbers is a reflection of the ongoing efforts of both branches of the profession towards reform and openness in their admissions policies. Given that the administration of justice and the administration of the law is so closely bound up with the public administration of the State, it is important that persons should have reasonable access to legal qualification. It is not simply a matter of providing a service for the public in a particular marketplace. It is a branch, and profession, of business which is so closely tied up with the administration of the State that citizens should be entitled to aspire to membership of the profession if they so wish.
There are approximately 1,100 complaints per annum against solicitors and approximately 25 per annum against members of the Bar. I share the concern of many Deputies on such levels of complaints, especially against solicitors. Given that there are over 9,000 practising solicitors and barristers many of whom would have large numbers of claims, it is not surprising this number of complaints arise but I am confident that the establishment of the legal services ombudsman will assist in rectifying problems which may arise in the investigation of complaints by the relevant professional bodies, both as regards the speed, thoroughness and outcome.
Deputy Ó Snodaigh queried section 11(2) and the arrangements on the appointment of staff to the office of the legal services ombudsman. It is a standard practice to obtain the consent of the Minister for Finance where staff are being appointed. Consultation with the Bar Council and the Law Society is considered necessary, given that they will both be funding the office of the legal services ombudsman. Section 18(5) provides that the Minister may recover from the Bar Council or the Law Society, as a simple contract debt, any amount due in respect of the levy. I have in the past expressed my appreciation of the willingness of the legal profession to embrace change and reform. I look forward to the valued contributions of Deputies on the establishment of the office on Committee Stage.
On the gaming and lotteries legislation, the Minister has in the past expressed concerns at the growth of unregulated casino-type operations in this country operating ostensibly as private members' clubs. These expressions of concern are not just the Minister's own views. His statements reflect the real worries expressed by the leading international anti-money laundering body, the Financial Action Task Force, that operations of this kind are vulnerable to abuse by laundering ill-gotten moneys. With that in mind, the Minister has established an interdepartmental committee, chaired by a barrister, to examine what approaches can be taken to regulate casino style operations. The deliberations of the committee will no doubt take account of broader gaming issues within the State. Among these issues will be the question of on-line gaming raised by a number of Deputies during the debate.
Deputy Howlin described as modest the proposals in the Bill to amend the gaming and lotteries legislation. He is correct. The limits being amended are hopelessly outdated and the Bill seeks no more than to remedy that aspect of the 1956 Act.
Deputy Cuffe adverted to the mathematics of the proposed increase in stake and price limits and expressed concern as to the vulnerability of children to exposure to gaming. The 1956 Act specifically outlaws gaming by those under the age of 16 and there are no proposals to lower that age limit. I might add that gaming is unlawful unless the local authority has passed the appropriate resolution permitting the operation of slot machines within its functional area. There are further steps that any intending operators must also take. They must obtain a certificate from the local District Court and then apply to the Revenue Commissioners for a licence, which may be granted subject to conditions.
Fifty years ago the maximum stake of sixpence would have bought, for instance, an eight-square bar of milk chocolate. The maximum stake of that level is clearly now unrealistically low, as is the maximum price limit of ten shillings. These need to be increased to realistic levels and that is all that this Bill does.
On statutory law restatement, Deputy Howlin, while welcoming the Bill, was worried that the approach taken would tend towards a lack of clarity as to what the state of the present law will be. I support his concern that statutes should be accessible, not just to the legal profession but to any person who wants to find out the current legal position. The Statute Law (Restatement) Act 2002, to which Deputy Howlin referred, provides a means whereby blocks of law on a particular matter can be drawn together and presented in a comprehensive and coherent way. Where possible, the provisions of this Bill have been drafted as amendments to existing legislation. This approach is ideal for the preparation of restatements, once this Bill has been enacted, of the various other elements of the Statute Book that it amends. It will be possible to update in a restatement form already available of the Succession Act. Other areas such as the gaming and lotteries legislation can also be restated after the Bill is passed.
In the matter of the court and court officers legislation there are difficulties. There is a mass of statute law, going back to the foundation of the State and before, that can often be a minefield for the inexperienced, and indeed the experienced, reader. I am glad to inform the House that there is a project under way under the aegis of the Law Reform Commission to address this major task.
Deputies Howlin and Catherine Murphy expressed concern about the limit of €3,000 in the Bill that the Law Society can award to a client against a solicitor who has provided a poor service. This is an innovation. The Law Society does not have this power at all at present. The maximum set in the Bill can be compared, for instance, with the maximum fine that at present can be imposed by the District Court in criminal matters.
As Deputy Howlin noted, the making of an award is not intended to limit in any way the right of an aggrieved client to pursue a full claim for compensation through the courts. The disciplinary committee of the Law Society is not a court of law and it is appropriate that its power to award compensation should be limited to a modest level. However, this issue can be re-examined on Committee Stage.
Deputy Jim O'Keeffe identified the thinking behind the requirement in the legislation that the Law Society disciplinary committee and its sub-committees should be chaired by solicitors. He shares the concern that the chair of such committees should be up to the task of handling difficult points of law and procedure that are likely to be raised in the normal course of its business. The skills and experience to deal properly with these challenges are likely to be found in lawyers. Whether the chair should be confined to solicitors alone, even if, in this context, they can be expected to be in ready supply, is a matter that can be revisited.
In his opening contribution, the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, referred to further matters that are likely to be included in the legislation by way of Government amendments to be tabled on Committee Stage. The amendments under development cover a number of areas, including anonymity for certain participants in civil proceedings in special circumstances; the wards of court legislation and, in particular, the provisions requiring that wards receive regular visitations by court appointed visitors; the banking arrangements for the collection of fines; the conferring of functions on county registrars by way of regulations made under the European Communities Act 1972; the adjustments to the levels of maximum stake and prize in slot machines under the gaming and lotteries legislation; technical adjustments to material relating to the legal services ombudsman; and technical adjustments to the legislation on the classification of films and videos. Other matters may arise in the development of these amendments.
In any event, the Minister looks forward to a rewarding debate on the details of the Bill on Committee Stage and any additional proposals brought forward by himself or other Members. I thank Members for their contributions and I commend the Bill to the House.