ALMOST five years ago, when the troika stormtroopers confronted our Government with a chilling dose of reality around what we could and could not afford, one of the cost drivers targetted was Ireland’s exceptionally high legal fees.
Amid the general pay cuts and raft of new charges, levies and taxes, the idea of realistic, less eye-watering, legal fees was a sweetener aimed at everyone except the legal profesion. It was a good-cop gesture to balance a litany of bad-cop cuts.
The troika may have been serious about cutting legal costs but it is increasingly difficult — if not already impossible — to believe that our Government was ever committed to confronting the privilege so deeply embedded in our public affairs. One of the terms accepted by Government in the 2010 rescue package was that an independent regulator for legal services would be in place by the third quarter of 2011. Despite determined but ultimately fruitless efforts by the former Justice Minister Alan Shatter, four years later we’re still waiting, and may be for some time to come. Our Rumpoles have successfully closed their chamber doors and deflected the winds of change. They know that the prospect of any real challenge to their comfortable, lucrative world is increasingly unlikely during the lifetime of this Government, a Government, laughably as it transpires, elected with the strongest mandate for reform in the history of this Republic.
The troika are not the only international agency to be so amused by Irish legal fees that they felt obliged to try to save us from ourselves. A United Nations agency has received complaints that our “prohibitively expensive” legal costs stymie access to justice for the great majority of citizens.
The UN’s Economic Commission for Europe has sought, by September 15, a Department of Environment response to the challenges. The complaints were made under the Aarhus Convention which deals with environmental issues. Ireland ratified the convention just over three years ago and has, amongst other complainants, been used by seven anti wind-farm groups to initiate investigations.
The legislation needed to move the goalposts — the Legal Services Regulation Bill — finally passed through the Dáil in April, but its Seanad ratification has been delayed by the summer break. During the Dáil debate Alan Shatter said we could “no longer afford to indulge a cabal of legal practitioners that wants to stay in the 19th century”. Despite this reform-minded call to arms, efforts to introduce real change to benefit everyone except the legal profession have, predictably enough, run into very deep and soft sand. Like every other campaign aimed at challenging self-serving organisations, a series of reports exists to support deep change.
In 2006 the Competition Authority pointed out that lawyers regulate themselves, run closed training programmes, set fee structures and process complaints made against their members. An arrangement described in the vernacular as “a handy number”. These are the issues we should judge our Government on, not on whether or not they add a fiver to pensions or the dole. That we don’t, despite its great power and influence, is the strongest card in the legal profession’s hand.
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