In late 2010 the government told the troika – as part of the bailout plan and a legal reform programme – we would have an independent regulator for legal services in place by the third quarter of 2011. Four years later and despite all the bravado, the legislation to allow this – the Legal Services Regulation Bill – has yet to become law.


Everyone knows reform is needed. There have been lots of reports over the years, including the landmark 2006 Competition Authority study of the profession, pointing it out. Lawyers were regulating themselves, running closed training programmes, setting their own fee structures and overseeing their own complaints. The Bar Council and the Law Society acted as both lobby groups and regulators.


A lack of reform has meant that legal costs in Ireland are well above the international average. The Medical Protection Society, which provides indemnity cover to medical consultants, said legal costs in cases here were among the highest in the world, pushing up insurance costs for doctors and leading to huge financial risks for claimants.


It took a year after the bailout before the legal reform legislation was even published and perhaps it will make it into the statute books before the fourth anniversary of its publication in October. The EU Commission, in a recent report, blamed opposition from “vested interests” for the delay. Of course, the “vested interests” dispute this, with the Bar Council arguing that the delays had arisen from “within the Department” and due to other legislative priorities.


There was initially disagreement about how members of the board of the new regulatory authority would be appointed but this was resolved. The big battle however has been the structure of the profession and in particular the proposals to allow solicitors and barristers to work together in legal partnerships and to work with other professions, such as accountants, in multi-disciplinary practices.


Even when the law is passed, it is believed that change will be slow and even the establishment of legal partnerships will be subject to a six-month consultation process by the new regulatory authority.


The Bill will bring many welcome changes: Regulation will be taken on by an independent body, it will oversee an independent complaints mechanism, fees will be more transparent and some of the old restrictions – such as lawyers taking a share of “winnings” in court, or junior counsel taking a percentage of the fee of senior counsel – will end.


Source: Irish Times