Solicitors’ fees - Time to rein in greedy lawyers

ATTITUDES towards the legal profession will undoubtedly be coloured by the outcome of the Law Society’s investigation into double charging of clients by solicitors which begins today.

There can be no doubt a jaundiced public will welcome the scathing remarks of the Master of the High Court, Edmund Honohan, the most senior courts official in the country, who says reform of the legal profession must now be high on the political agenda.

Echoing the public’s growing sense of dismay, he expressed disgust at how widespread the practice of overcharging appears to have been in the case of the Residential Institutions Redress Board.

Underlining that the mood for seismic change was now unstoppable, he complained that wronged clients sometimes felt they had nowhere to turn.

It is absolutely scandalous that clients were overcharged by solicitors who had already been paid for work on the compensation of victims abused while in State care. Anybody found guilty of stealing a handbag would be sure to face a severe sentence in the courts. Indeed, in one outrageous verdict a woman was sentenced to several years in jail for stealing a handbag.

By the same token, any solicitor who overcharged a client should face prosecution. They should also be struck off.

Furthermore, all money misappropriated by solicitors from their clients should be returned in full. Equally, the victims of fraud should be compensated for the distress suffered at the hands of unscrupulous solicitors who creamed a percentage off the top of compensation awards from the board.

On a broader canvas, any person who was ever involved in a court case will endorse Mr Honohan’s comments about a system of legal billing which is highly confusing for clients. Pointing out that most people have no idea of what goes to make up a legal bill, he says they are at the mercy of the system when it comes to challenging bills.

These remarks take on added relevance in cases where costs are awarded against clients. In effect, they could end up paying for mistakes made by their solicitors. But as things stand, they have little comeback.

Against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that public disquiet should be mounting over the lack of sanctions against solicitors apart from the process of self regulation by the Law Society.

Given the degree to which people have to rely on the good faith and probity of their solicitor, there are compelling arguments in favour of replacing the current system of self regulation with a more disinterested form of scrutiny. A completely independent watchdog with sharp teeth would lower public fears that greedy members of the legal profession would feel they could get away with defrauding clients.

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