I never thought I’d see the day when I’d put both the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Irish legal education together in the title of a blogpost. But there it is, above. And this is because the summary of the the Joint EU-IMF Programme for Ireland on the Department of the Taoiseach website suggests that there will be consequences for legal education:
Removal of restrictions to competition in sheltered sectors including:
– establish an independent regulator;
– implement the recommendations of the Legal Costs Working Group and outstanding Competition Authority recommendations. …
The enhancement of competition and the reduction of regulation in sheltered sectors is a standard IMF prescription, so this recommendation comes as little surprise. As for its details, the Legal Costs Working Group was established in 2004 and asked to look at the way in which legal costs are determined and assessed, and it reported in 2005 (pdf). In December 2006, as part of a series of reports on regulated professions, the Competition Authority published a Report on the Legal Professions which determined that the legal profession was in need of substantial reform. In particular, the Competition Authority made a series of recommendations to remove what it saw as the many unnecessary and disproportionate restrictions on competition in the market for legal services; their most important recommendation was the introduction of an independent regulator to replace of the present system of self-regulation by the Bar Council and the Law Society. At the time, LexFerenda observed:
While I’m very happy with the result, I remain uncomfortable with the reasoning (which is no fault of the Competition Authority, as they have a specific job to do). The regulation of legal training is not a normal ‘service’ subject to economic regulation, but at least in part an aspect of higher education. The language of competition and markets may be helpful, especially in the context of the access-to-profession argument, but it is not, in my view, the best framework for the education one. The current situation is plain wrong, especially given the role of the Society in particular in self-regulation of the solicitors’ profession. However, seeing legal training as a pure market could lead to future problems with regard to fees, private education, quality assurance and so on. …
I hope that, if the recommendations of the Authority are accepted, and we end up with some sort of legal services board, that the legislation (or whatever) that sets it up makes it clear that the recognition of education providers is not merely a case of filling out the forms, paying the registration fee and charging whatever the hell you want, but a serious matter that affects the educational prospects of university and other students, the future shape of the legal profession, and social issues as a whole. …
It is sad that our governments have not implemented these recommendations of the Legal Costs Working Group and the Competition Authority; indeed, it is doubly sad that it takes an external agency like IMF to insist that these recommendations are in fact implemented. The Competition Authority recommended that the Legal Services Commission (LSC) should set standards for the training of solicitors and barristers and approve institutions that wish to provide such training. In particular, the LSC should make such a determination on the basis of agreed and objective licensing criteria. Hence, the existing providers of legal professional training – the Law Society and the King’s Inns – and any other institutions that might emerge seeking to provide training for solicitors or barristers would then be required to apply to the LSC for approval to do so.
A superb summary of the current state of Irish legal education and an excellent discussion of the challenges it faces is provided by Marie-Luce Paris & Lawrence Donnelly “Legal Education in Ireland: A Paradigm Shift to the Practical?” (2010) 11 German Law Journal 1067-1092; whilst a fascinating historical background to the Competition Authority’s recommendations is provided by Patricia Herron “Two Thousand Years of Legal Education in Ireland”  3 Web JCLI. The belated implementation of the Competition Authority’s recommendations on the profession, including their recommendations relating to legal education, will add a whole new dimension to such accounts. It will be interesting to see if any of the existing third level providers of undergraduate legal education apply the LSC to provide professional legal training.
If they were to enter professional legal education, many existing providers of undergraduate and postgraduate legal education have the potential to exploit and pass on the benefit of efficiencies achievable through already sunk costs, cross-subsidisation of running costs and economies of scale. These efficiencies would be achievable through utilisation of the existing availability to them of a highly-skilled and experienced pool of legal expertise, administrative and support staff, funding sources and, not least, suitable, well-equipped and appropriately-located premises. Indeed, it may be cost-effective (or at least not manifestly financially disadvantageous) for some such institutions to provide professional legal education in tandem with undergraduate and postgraduate legal education. If this were to occur, then integrated undergraduate and professional legal education courses would emerge, mirroring existing integrated pre-clinical and clinical medical education. In my view, this would be an excellent outcome. I therefore await developments with great interest and not a little impatience!
Update (1 December 2010): The Government has published the full text of the EU IMF programme of Financial Support for Ireland. The text extracted above regarding the implementation of the Competition Authority recommendations appears (in slightly different formatting) on page 14, as one of the actions to be completed by the end of the third quarter of 2011. Given this speed, I may not have to be so impatient after all!