The Department of Justice has published a press release indicating that the Legal Services Regulation Bill is to be published within the next few days, having received the approval of cabinet.
Regulatory reform in respect of legal services is a key commitment in theEU/IMF Programme for Financial Support for Ireland. A blueprint for reform, indicated in the financial support programme, was provided by the Competition Authority’s 2006 report on the legal professions. The detailed indications of the content of the Bill in the press release suggest the government has rejected some aspects of the Competition Authority report. Notably the proposal that a new regulator would oversee professional self-regulation (as occurs in England and Wales through the Legal Services Board established in 2009) appears to have given way to a new regulatory body which will have direct responsibility for oversight of the professions.
In addition to the Legal Services Regulatory Authority, two further new public bodies are to be established: an Office of the Legal Costs Adjudicator (who will take on regulatory functions over costs currently administered by the Taxing Master) and a Legal Professions Disciplinary Tribunal which will take over responsibility for addressing complaints of professional misconduct, currently administered by the Bar Council and the Law Society of Ireland.
The central rationale stated for the reforms is the promotion of a more competitive environment for provision of legal services, and this is reflected in proposals to allocate tasks concerning entry to the profession and the education of lawyers to the new Legal Services Regulatory Authority so as to liberalize certain aspects of professional education and end the situation under which the profession is both provider and regulator of legal education.
The establishment of three distinct agencies may be controversial and raises the question whether the variety of functions could be undertaken by a single agency. The press release indicates that the industry will be levied to pay for the new regulatory bodies (as occurs with a number of existing regulatory bodies such as the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland). Comments in the press suggest that the professions are concerned that the power of the minister to appoint members of the Legal Services Regulatory Authority will compromise the professional independence of lawyers. It is actually not unusual to find ministers exercising such powers of appointment (appointments to the Legal Services Board in England and Wales are made by a government minister, the Lord Chancellor). Clearly board members must be appointed by someone and ministers are accountable to parliament for their actions. Even the most independent of actors within the legal system, judges, are appointed by ministers (though this is not uncontroversial).
Certain of the more controversial aspects of potential reform, such as fusing the barristers’ and solicitors’ professions and introducing multi-disciplinary partnerships have been assigned to the new Regulatory Authority for research and consideration rather than be provided for directly in the Bill, according to the press release.