Complaints against lawyers

Department of Justice building, via their siteThe Office of the Legal Services Ombudsman for England and Wales and the Office of the Scottish Legal Services Ombudsman were established in 1990. There are plans afoot for their reform (Scotland | England & Wales) but the basic principle of independent oversight of disciplinary matters for the legal professions will not only remain intact but be enhanced. Now, it seems that Irish law is soon to adopt this principle too. Carol Coulter has an interesting article about recent developments in this regrad in today’s Irish Times (sub req’d); some extracts:

Ombudsman will oversee complaints against lawyers

A Legal Services Ombudsman who will be appointed by the Government for up to six years will have oversight of the disciplining of solicitors and barristers, and of their recruitment and training. The ombudsman will be appointed under the Legal Services Ombudsman Bill, expected to be published next week.

The Bill was originally part of the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2006 [2006 press release], but was taken out of this Bill for further development in the wake of controversy concerning solicitors Michael Lynn and Thomas Byrne. Under it, members of the public will be able to appeal to the ombudsman if they are dissatisfied with the outcome of complaints to the disciplinary bodies of the Law Society or Bar Council.

The Legal Services Ombudsman (LSO) will be a ministerial appointment of a person with “appropriate experience, qualifications, training or expertise”. The nature of such experience or qualifications is not specified in the Bill. However, members of the Oireachtas, European Parliament, local authorities, Law Society or Bar Council, or solicitors or barristers, will not be eligible for appointment. …

This is an entirely welcome development. The Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, 2006 covers a very wide range of matters, including provisions relating to the courts and court officers, landlord and tenant, juries, succession, variation of trusts, and various technical matters. Separating out this important measure, and bringing it forward now, is an excellent demonstration of the significance of the establishment of the Legal Services Ombudsman. At this juncture, in advance of the publication of the Bill, it is not possible to comment on the details of the LSO, but I would nevertheless make two suggestions, one relating to the person appointed, the other relating to the location of the Ombudsman’s offices.

As to person appointed, I think that it should be a senior academic lawyer. Any solicitor or barrister appointed to the post could find it difficult to engage with the other branch of the profession, which is why the Bill quite rightly will exclude practising lawyers from either branch of the profession from appointment. An academic lawyer on the other hand would not have an institutional commitment to either branch of the practising profession, whilst possessing both a lawyer’s sensitivity to the issues, and a lay person’s objectivity. And there are several senior academic lawyers – University Presidents, Deans of Faculties, Heads of Schools – who would easily fit the bill. Would it be too much to anticipate that the Bill would not exclude them? If so, would it be too much to hope that one or more of them might apply? If so, would it be too much to expect to expect that one of them might be appointed?

As to the location of the Ombudsman’s offices, I think they should be in a Dublin suburb accessible by Luas but far from the city centre. It should be in Dublin because that is where the relevant regulatory bodies (Bar Council, Law Society) and the vast majority of practitioners are located. But it should be in a suburb rather than in or near the city centre, so that a certain physical as well as psychological distance can be maintained between the Ombudsman and the professions: it should be clear right from the start that the professions must come to the Ombudsman, and not vice versa. And the suburb should be one accessible by Luas, because most of our public transport links (especially our inter-city rail stations) to a greater or lesser extent link up with the Luas, and members of the public travelling to Dublin, as well as those travelling within Dublin, to the Ombudsman’s office should be able to take public transport to do so. Dundrum is one possibility, but those with better knowledge of Dublin’s geography than I possess will no doubt be able to make other suggestions.

Roll on next week then, and the publication of the Bill; and roll on the appointment of the LSO as soon as possible thereafter. It cannot come quickly enough.