Law Society denies it knew about overcharges

THE Law Society has hit back at the abuse victims compensation board for saying it could have done more to stop solicitors overcharging vulnerable clients.

In a letter to the Residential Institutions Redress Board yesterday, the Law Society’s director general, Ken Murphy, complained it “does not consider this implied criticism to be justified on the facts”.

“The board’s suggestion appears to be based on a mistaken impression that the society, prior to last week, had information from which it could reasonably have been expected to conclude that there was a widespread problem of solicitors double charging in Redress Board cases. The society had no such information.”

That contention was roundly rejected by abuse victims’ groups yesterday. Survivors say while they are heartened by the apparent get-tough response of the Law Society to the current controversy, they are less impressed by the society’s denial of previous knowledge of the practices.

They say questions still remain as to how the society could not have known what was going on and why it did not react to the growing evidence of overcharging in recent months.

Noel Barry of survivors’ group, Right of Place, said he had raised the issue with the Law Society in September 2003 but got nowhere.

“They were hiding behind the legislation that said they couldn’t investigate because the Redress Board proceedings are private, but that didn’t stop them sending out signals to solicitors that this kind of practice was out of line.”

The Redress Board made the same point to the society in a letter earlier this week, noting that while the law only changed in July this year, “there was nothing in the original legislation to prevent the Law Society taking other action of a general nature, such as writing a stern note to its members pointing out the inappropriateness of the alleged deductions”.

Up to 5pm yesterday, the Law Society had received 84 complaints on the phone line it set up last week.

As yet, no meeting of the society’s complaints committee has been held to begin investigations. Mr Murphy said not enough information was available yet on any one case but he repeated the society’s pledge to begin investigations on any complaint within a fortnight of it being lodged.

He also said further advertisements would be placed in Irish newspapers as well as in the North and in Britain to alert clients who may have been overcharged that the phone line was in operation.

Mr Barry said while he welcomed the repayments in recent days by some firms who overcharged clients, this would not stop Right of Place urging its members to lodge formal complaints.

The organisation is also to convene an emergency general meeting next week to decide whether to push for a garda investigation on the grounds of fraud.

Aislinn foundation director Christine Buckley said she would also consider making formal complaints. “I had a meeting with the Law Society on Monday and was promised a progress report within a fortnight. If I’m not happy that they are making progress, I will talk to people in here about turning their files over to the gardaí.”

Questions Law Society must answer

1. How much was known about the overcharging of abuse victims prior to the current controversy?

2. Why was the alarm not raised when one formal complaint was lodged earlier this year?

3. Why did the society say it was prohibited by the law as it existed up to July this year from acting on concerns when the law only prevented it from investigating, not from issuing circulars reminding solicitors of the rules and their responsibilities?

4. Why, when the law was changed in July this year, did the society not question why it needed powers of investigation?

5. Why were the comments of solicitor Eamonn Murray not investigated when he wrote in the August-September edition of the Law Gazette, that there were a “considerable number of complaints”?

6. Will the society now voluntarily adopt practices preventing members seeking payment from clients before Redress Board awards are made?

7. How can the society assure clients before the Redress Board and the general public that this kind of behaviour will not be repeated?

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