Bar Council unhappy with IMF proposals

Bar Council logo, via the Law Library websiteFollowing on from my post on the impact of the IMF bailout on Irish legal education, I see from today’s Irish Times that the Bar Council (logo left) is not happy with some of the proposals, in particular those directed to the establishment of an independent statutory Legal Services Commission:

Parts of legal sector reform ‘not in public interest’

CAROL COULTER, Legal Affairs Editor

THE BAR Council has criticised proposals concerning the legal professions in the Government’s four-year plan and in the EU-International Monetary Fund (IMF) programme of financial support. … Responding to queries from The Irish Times, the Bar Council said it welcomed aspects of the plan and the programme:

However, there are other aspects which have come as some surprise to the Bar Council, and which cause it concern, not because of any sectional or selfish interest but because they do not appear to be in the public interest.

… Bar Council chairman Paul O’Higgins SC said the Council had not been made aware of any detailed proposal to give effect to the establishment of an agency described as an “independent regulator” and it awaited details:

The Bar Council notes that the position of legal services ombudsman has recently been advertised in the national press. It is not clear how that position will interact with what may be a further State agency, namely, the ‘independent regulator’. …

Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? The article finished with a quote from me:

the single most effective reform of the legal system would be the establishment of an independent regulator and the introduction of genuinely competitive tendering.

I don’t agree with the Bar Council’s point about there being a potential conflict between the Legal Services Commission and the Legal Services Ombudsman. The role of that office (which I welcomed when the current legislation was initially published) is to oversee the handling by the Law Society and Bar Council of complaints by clients of solicitors and barristers. The Ombudsman is independent in the performance of the functions of the office. There is no reason why this function could not simply be folded into the more general Legal Services Commission. For example, the Ombudsman could be a member of the Commission, and the Ombudsman’s office could be a division within the broader functions of the Commission. Moreover, there is no reason why the Ombudsman should not be given greater powers in respect of disciplinary matters relating to both branches of the profession: in particular, that office could be the first port of call for parties seeking to complain about a solicitor or barrister, and not simply be an appeal body from an internal complaints system.

Other divisions within the Legal Services Commission can take up the other functions recommended by the Legal Costs Working Group in 2005 and the Competition Authority in 2006. One of these concerns extending the provision of professional legal education beyond the monopolies currently enjoyed by the Law Society in training solicitors and the King’s Inns in training barristers. Most other common law countries have gone this route. In my view, it is long past time for Ireland to do the same. My only regret is that is has taken the IMF to make us do it!