Fine Gael will probably have the choice of Minister for Justice & Equality and the position is expected by many to go to Alan Shatter, veteran solicitor, politician and publisher of colourful pamphlets.
He wants a legacy. He wants to change the way the country works. He wants to make a difference. And you get the feeling that if he gets his chance, three decades of frustration will be released by a deluge of legislation.
Much of this deluge may be to the benefit of solicitors. For example, traditions that tend to afford barristers a higher professional status could be done away with: “silly nonsense such as wigs and position in court is treated in contempt” by Shatter. However, given his views on solicitor advocacy and the traditions of the bar, he is surprisingly reticent to offer a definitive view on whether the professions should be amalgamated.
If we are to have modern legal services, there are a few sacred cows that need to be dealt with. The differentiation between solicitors and barristers is going to become more clouded. The question of whether it will be a piecemeal evolution or a structured evolution that is effected by agreement in legislation is an interesting issue.
He goes on to say that solicitors should be admitted to the bar, that changes to solicitors’ costs are on the way but might not be drastic and that the Law Society does a reasonably good job of regulating solicitors. He also “believes that [the] proposed Legal Services Ombudsman who will shortly be appointed may well be sufficient in terms of independent regulation”.
The elephant in the interview room was, of course, the IMF. The agreement reached between the Irish Government and the IMF for financial support requires the following structural reforms of the legal professions:
- establishment of an independent regulator;
- implementation of the Legal Costs Working Group report; and
- implementation of the Competition Authority report.
These high-level items provide little detail of what might actually be implemented, unless one assumes that the reports mentioned are implemented in full with no tailoring. Whether or not individual members of the professions agree with the proposed reforms, it is likely that all Irish lawyers would agree that reforms are necessary. As argued by Eoin O’Dell:
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.
These reforms must be implemented before the end of 2011 but there has been little news and, as far as I am aware, no communications from the Law Society about the changes since they were announced.
Shatter offers a view on reform of the professions which is quite different than that often aired in the media.
Outside the profession, there is talk of non-solicitors doing this work without realising the complexities to be addressed, the level of training you need or the insurance implications. If you want competition, you don’t want work of lesser quality. It is too easy for politicians who are non-lawyers to talk about competition without understanding the necessity to ensure that professional work is properly done. No one has suggested to the medical profession that non-qualified doctors undertake appendectomies because the perception is that removing someone’s appendix is a relatively simple operation.
Of course, many will dismiss such sentiments as tainted by vested interest. Part of the difficulty for solicitors at present is that their views are rarely given any weight due to the public perception of the profession.
Allied to the disruption facing solicitors when the above reforms are implemented are the ongoing difficulties with solicitors’ insurance. On that topic, Shatter says:
It’s hugely important that consumers are compensated for the negligence of solicitors. Insurance must remain mandatory. The conveyancing area is where a lot of problems arose. Solicitors who were less than expert in conveyancing were charging fees that had no economic reality and short-circuited the work they were doing.
From anecdotal evidence, 2011 will be a horrific year for many solicitors with rumours that a number of successful practices will close. Given that job protection and creation is a core aim of all parties, one hopes that any regulatory changes introduced will not add to the large proportion of the profession which is already unemployed.