Month: July 2010

DoJ documents on solicitors’ insurance silent on bailout by Law Society

The solicitors’ profession faced a situation in late 2009 which was not dissimilar to that faced by the Irish banking sector in September 2008. I wrote about it in January 2010, outlining the chain of events that led to the Law Society guaranteeing a commercial loan to an insurance broker. The guarantee was conditional on the Law Society receiving counsel’s opinion to the effect that they could give such a guarantee and that opinion was obtained. Some of us wondered if there were not legal or regulatory issues which could affect this guarantee, given by a de facto State agency to a private company with more than half of the PI market.

So, I submitted freedom of information requests to the Department of Justice and the Department of Finance. To my surprise, the Financial Regulator is not subject to the Freedom of Information Acts 1997 and 2003 (FOIA), so no application could be made to it. The requests sought all records relating to:

  1. the difficulties experienced in the market for professional indemnity insurance for solicitors in 2009;
  2. the resolution of the Law Society to guarantee repayment of a loan facility to be obtained by the Solicitors Mutual Defence Fund (SMDF) from a commercial lender; and
  3. all communications to and from the Law Society, the SMDF and other insurance companies, underwriters and brokers in relation to same.

The Department of Finance had nothing. Some weeks after a decision was due I received 10 documents, all falling with the third category sought (the Department does not hold any records under categories 1 and 2).

The documents primarily consist of briefing notes for internal use within the Department of Justice, most of which reproduce or paraphrase the contents of the first note. They suggest that the Law Society, which sets the rules for the professional indemnity insurance (PII) scheme, operates independently of Government. Changes to the PII regulations do not require the Minister’s agreement but he can direct the Law Society to amend the regulations. For example, one note for the Minister says that although the Council of the Law Society met to consider the issue in August 2009 “we have no information on what transpired.”

The following points are of interest:

  • Ken Murphy, Director General of the Law Society, sought a meeting with the Minister for Justice in October 2009. This request is referred to in internal Department communications as relating to a briefing “on the looming ‘crisis'” in the PII scheme. The meeting took place on 15 October 2009.
  • The Minister indicated that the then Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment should be notified of the situation. A draft letter was prepared, but it is not clear if the letter was sent. The draft letter stated:

In the event that the measures already taken by the Society, and the additional measures planned, do not sufficiently address the concerns of insurers, there may be proposals to suspend or abolish the compulsory nature of the PII scheme for solicitors. I have indicated to the Society that, in the interest of protecting clients, I would not support such a proposal.

  • A later briefing note says that solicitors who have difficulty in paying their premium were told by insurance companies that they would “source the money for them (presumably involving a commission).” It also says that solicitors were being told that conveyancing should not make up more than 30% of their practice (hardly an issue for most solicitors at present).
  • The last document, from February 2010, states that 18 firms had failed to notify the Law Society of their insurers by 1 February. “This is 0.8% of the 2,249 firms on record and is on a par with previous years.”

The documents are interesting in that they show the extent to which the Law Society runs the show for PII, with the Government taking a detached role. They also show that the Minister is firmly of the view that abolishing compulsory PII is not an option.

However, the most interesting aspect of the documents is the lack of any reference to the Law Society’s provision of a guarantee in favour of the SMDF. Therefore, it remains unknown what the attitude of the Department of Justice and other insurance companies is to that arrangement.

Update

  • One of the measures adopted by the Law Society last year was to exclude from PII cover the giving of undertakings by solicitors to financial institutions in commercial property transactions. However, additional top-up insurance could be purchased to cover such transactions. This morning, the Law Society announced the expected ban on giving such undertakings, to come into effect on 1 December 2010 (the first day of the new insurance year).

According to Gerard Doherty, President of the Law Society:

[T]he experience of the Society’s regulatory committees, in particular the Professional Indemnity Insurance Committee, in recent years is that the banks’ ad hoc ‘system’ (with no agreed basis or consistent usage) under which solicitors gave certain types of undertakings in order to complete commercial property transactions exposed the public interest to an unacceptable level of risk. It was essentially flawed and beyond regulatory control with a range of damaging consequences for the public interest, as experience has demonstrated.

The frailties of the commercial undertakings ‘system’, which has been the subject of critical comment by members of the judiciary, has been reviewed by the Society in the light of its capacity to facilitate reckless lending and fraud – with massive losses to lenders as in the Lynn and Byrne cases. The conflict of interest in which solicitors can find themselves, acting for both the borrower and the lender in the same transaction, is at the heart of the problem.

During the boom years solicitors were pressurised, both by borrowers and by lenders, to give letters of undertaking to lenders in commercial property transactions. This frequently led to situations where the undertakings were not complied with and many substantial loans were not properly secured.

An essential part of any banking system is to ensure that proper security is in place where loans, particularly of a substantial nature, are advanced. The risk of failure in this regard is greatly reduced if lenders retain their own solicitors to take responsibility for ensuring the security is put in place.

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Does the home defence bill clarify the law?

[Updates at end] The Minister for Justice has published the Criminal Law (Defence and the Dwelling Bill) 2010. In 2009, the Law Reform Commission published a report on general defences in criminal law which addressed the specific issue of home defence, noting:

The law surrounding these defences, as with many aspects of the criminal law, has evolved over time. The nature and scope of these defences have, in the Commission‟s view, been troubled with some inconsistencies, competing rationales and even arguments as to whether they should be abolished in certain instances. In this Report, the Commission proposes to provide a more coherent framework for the future application of the defences.

As indicated by the above statement, there is already plenty of law on the subject but, as it derives from case law it can be unpredictable and often fails the black and white certainty test called for by the media and public on certain occasions.

From the US National Archives
A reasonable defence against theft of some petrol?

Background

The Law Reform Commission suggested draft legislation to clarify the law on home defence which was not adopted by the Minister (though he might have been expected to). In reality, the new Bill has been generated as a response to the killing of John “Frog” Ward. A background to that case and the resulting prosecutions of Padraig Nally is available on Wikipedia, and the usual health warning applies.

That Mr. Nally was convicted, successfully appealed and was acquitted on re-trial evidences the lack of clarity or consistency in the law. Nevertheless, it is a strange case to act as a catalyst for new laws to strengthen the position of those who use force in self-defence. Mr. Nally was living alone at his home and appears to have been subjected to an indefensible series of incidents which led him to feel threatened in his home, but the case was not the stereotypical home defence case. It should be remembered that that:

  • Mr. Nally did not encounter the trespasser at close quarters within the home, rather he saw a trespasser exiting his home;
  • the incident took place at around 2 pm., in daylight;
  • Mr. Nally went to an outhouse where he had stored his gun;
  • he shot the trespasser, later reloaded his gun and fired another shot at the trespasser, who was now fleeing the scene; and
  • he beat him a significant number of times with a stick.

Other proposals to change the law on home defence

In response to the Nally cases, Fine Gael presented two private members’ bills on this issue in the Oireachtas, both with similar content, in 2006 and 2009. Both provided that, where a trespasser is unlawfully present in a dwelling “and remains within the dwelling”, resulting in the use of force by the occupier, that force is presumed to be reasonable unless the contrary is proven. However, nothing in either bill would have provided a defence to a charge of murder.

In addition to addressing criminal liability, both bills provided that no liability in tort would accrue to the occupier “in respect of any harm, whether serious or not, caused by his or her actions in relation to a trespasser” unless the force used is found to be unreasonable.

The Law Reform Commission’s draft bill provided, in relation to dwellings, that a person could use force (including lethal force) in the dwelling or the vicinity of it by way of defence to the threat or use of unlawful force by another person. This would only apply in the case of a threat of death or serious injury, rape or aggravated sexual assault, false imprisonment by force, unlawful entry to or occupation of the dwelling and damage to or destruction of the dwelling.

The Government’s Bill

The Minister’s Bill provides that it will not be an offence to use force within a dwelling against another person or their property where

  • (s)he believes the other person has entered or is entering the dwelling as a trespasser for the purpose of committing a criminal act; and
  • the force used is only such as is reasonable in the circumstances as he or she believes them to be (i) to protect from injury, assault, detention or death caused by a criminal act; (ii) to protect property from appropriation, destruction or damage caused by a criminal act, or (iii) to prevent the commission of a crime or to effect or assist in effecting, a lawful arrest.

The substance of the Bill provides much scope for debate, not least because the Fine Gael proposal did not provide a defence for a murder charge: the Minister’s Bill does. The criteria for reasonableness are in need of greater scrutiny but the provision on civil liability raises new questions.

Section 5 of the Bill provides that a person who uses force as permitted by the Bill shall not be liable in tort “in respect of any injury, loss or damage arising from the use of such force.” Such a provision could block claims like those taken by Mr. Ward’s widow against Mr. Nally. It will be interesting to see how this provision will work. The criminal justice system requires proof of guilt beyond reasonable doubt; the civil requirement is a lesser threshold of satisfying the balance of probabilities. If the user of force is acquitted on the basis of a section 2 defence, does that determine the matter for a judge hearing the civil trial? Or will the judge hearing the civil trial have to consider the issue, for example where no prosecution is brought against the user of force? If that judge determines that the force used was not permissible, will a prosecution result? It would certainly seem that cases of this sort should be excluded from the operation of the Injuries Board, which will hardly be in a position to determine the issue, but the Bill is silent on this.

Fine Gael’s 2009 Bill referred to harm caused “in relation to a trespasser”; an imprecise  phrase but one assumes that it absolves the user of force from civil liability to the trespasser. The Minister’s 2010 Bill is not so limited, allowing for the potential that a lawful resident, guest or neighbour who might be injured as a result of the force directed at the trespasser will be barred from taking action against the user of force. Alternatively, a guest in the home could use lawful force against a trespasser but injure the home owner. Section 5 appears to absolve that guest from all civil liability.

Does this Bill clarify the law?

The first draft of this Bill is likely to be a source of further confusion and ambiguity. It certainly does not tie up loose ends. While it is presented as legislation that “clarifies” the law, it is more accurate to say that it merely updates or amends the law. Sections 2(3) and (4), along with other aspects of the Bill, arguably do not advance the clarity of the  law on this topic. Despite frequent complaints from the public (and lawyers) that legislation is difficult to understand, those subsections are barely comprehensible. It is baffling that a simpler way could not be found to express some aspects of this Bill.

However, given that it resembles the Fine Gael bills at the high level, it could attract a good deal of cross-party support and pass through the Oireacthas without detailed scrutiny of its wording. This happened recently with the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010, Part 15 of which did not receive significant textual scrutiny despite criticisms from leading academics that the provisions on cohabitants’ rights were poorly drafted, contained anomalies and could do more harm than good.

Updates

  • Sinéad Ring discusses the Bill on the Human Rights in Ireland blog.
  • Vincent Browne says that the Bill “serves only nasty political ends”. As noted by the Law Reform Commission and others, reform of the law was necessary but the Bill does not resolve the issues and it is hard to disagree with Browne’s political assessment of the legislation:

Now a Bill has been introduced whose only purpose seems to be to respond to that vibe of five years ago, thereby neutralising any opportunist point-scoring in that arena by Fine Gael, while, incidentally, reminding Fianna Fáil TDs that there is a strong man around, should they be looking for same between now and the election.

Cohabitant rights on the way

The Civil Partnership Bill 2009, one of the most significant pieces of Irish law in the past few decades, has passed through the Dáil. Therefore, it is destined to become law but will first have to pass the Seanad and receive the Presidential signature. It will probably not take full effect until 2011, when the tax and social welfare laws have been amended in line with it and preparations are made to formalise civil partnerships.

I’ve written before about Part 15 of the Bill, which deals with cohabitants. This has received less attention, understandably, than the civil partnership elements of the law but Part 15 applies to all relationships, whether homosexual or heterosexual in nature. Amendments have been made to Part 15 so that cohabitants will have to live together for 5 years before their rights arise (2 years if dependent children are involved) rather than the original 3 year qualification period proposed in the first draft of the Bill.

Professor John Mee has made a detailed critique of the legislation, primarily pointing out drafting errors and ambiguities in the Bill. He also made general observations that Part 15 might do more harm than good. These points do not appear to have been addressed. Nor does the Minister appear to have amended the title to highlight the cohabitant elements, as was expected. Update: via Maman Poulet I learn that this has now happened and the legislation bears this tongue-twister of a name: the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Bill 2009.

Incidentally, there have been some suggestions (mostly from the odd Fianna Fáil backbencher) that the legislation is a Green Party measure, though Fianna Fáil’s manifesto for the 2007 general election (which predated coalition talks with the Green Party) contained a commitment to introduce the legislation.