Long-awaited legislation on legal fees on way

LONG-AWAITED legislation and the recommendations of a 2005 report which investigated ways of reducing legal costs may finally be put into practice under the Government’s four-year rescue plan for the economy.

Under the plan, the Government wants to introduce a package of measures to reduce legal fees across the board.

One of the main areas of focus will be to prioritise publication and enactment of the Legal Costs Bill, which promised to provide for the regulation and assessment of legal costs. The idea first aired as far back as 2003.

Earlier this month, Taoiseach Brian Cowen said the bill would “probably” be due before the house next year.

The plan also promises increased use of tendering by the state, additional proposals for legislation to reduce legal costs, drawing on the recommendations of the Legal Costs Working Group, which reported in 2005.

At the time, tánaiste and minister for justice Michael McDowell said he was attaching a “very high priority” to the implementation of the report’s recommendations.

The issue of legal costs most recently came to light earlier this year when a Taxing Master decided to grant only €393,472 of a €2.1 million legal bill.

Taxing Master Charles Moran described the costs claimed as “revolting in the extreme”.

The case involved an injured party, Declan O’Brien, and the Personal Injuries Assessment Board (PIAB) and the fees were those charged by the team representing Mr O’Brien.

In 2008 the state’s legal bill topped €200m, as a result of massive hikes in legal aid given to solicitors and barristers.

Included in that figure was the cost of running the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (€44m), the Chief State Solicitor’s Office (€41m), the State Claims Agency (which handles cases taken against the state and its agencies) and the legal aid scheme (€70m plus).

The Government’s blueprint for economic recovery, published yesterday, also makes provision for cost saving in the Office of the Attorney General, under administration expenditure, and will look for further economies in the cost of civil and criminal legal aid to the tune of about €5m in 2011.

Increased use of tendering by the state is under way in the HSE, with the establishment of a Legal Services Department.

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