MINISTER FOR JUSTICE Alan Shatter has rejected the “misleading contention” that the Legal Services Regulation Bill is a sudden, opportunistic and malevolent ambush on the legal sector.
Speaking at the Law Society Annual Conference this morning, Shatter said the existing mechanisms of self- and co-regulation do not offer transparency or competitiveness, which are necessary to inspire lasting public confidence.
He compared the lack of regulation in the sector to the failures of the financial world.
It was not professional regulation that led to the current global or national banking and economic crises but rather the lack or feebleness of it.
New processes are also needed to encourage growth and competition in a modern, open, recovering economy, he said.
The current economic crisis has been a revelation of how legal practitioners, whether individual or corporate, are no longer beyond the cut and thrust of the business world and are in fact having to interact with it on a daily basis.
Addressing the members of the Law Society in the conference’s keynote speech, Shatter took the opportunity to criticise previous Governments for leaving the State “ill prepared” for changes being implemented in other jurisdictions.
“In the area of international competition for legal services the train has left the station and we are risk of being left at the side of the track,” he said.
False-starts and neglect in the area of legal sector reform have led to the persistent policy concerns about the regulation of a more open legal profession, greater transparency in the charging of costs and the removal of restrictive practices in the provision of services, according to Shatter.
“The reformist route we are taking under the Legal Services Regulation Bill is merely the reciprocation of the different ways similar reform is already taking place in common law jurisdictions around the world,” added the Minister, citing alternative business models being rolled out in England, Wales, Scotland, Australia, Germany and Canada.
The new business world has led to new challenges for the legal sector, continued Shatter.
Clients are no longer governed by loyalty or the notion of “family lawyers” but are “happy to shop around or engage several lawyers simultaneously”. This is particularly the case when large or multinational firms are involved, added the Minister – who himself was a solicitor prior to taking up political posts.
Commenting on the cultural challenges which reforms present, Shatter likened some rites of passage to event at the “fictional academy that is Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.
The relevant provisions of the new Bill, which are broadly supported, will allow us to look unobtrusively at the current state of legal professional education and to identify appropriate opportunities for modernisation and change.
After initial disquiet, the Law Society has decided to accept proposals that complaints will be dealt with – not by them – but the newly-established Legal Services Regulatory Authority.
Shatter commended the association for its “maturity” in this particular area of change.
The Bill is nearing Committee State at Leinster House but some “fine-tuning” is still needed.