THE Law Society is to deploy undercover agents around the country's court venues in a bid to expose unscrupulous solicitors touting for business as competition for criminal-law work reaches "unprecedented" levels.
The use of the 'secret shopper' at court venues to identify solicitors engaging in the unauthorised practice of approaching court clients to represent them is one of a series of recommendations in a new Law Society report aimed at stamping out the practice.
The review group was established by the society in response to the "unprecedented level of concern" by solicitors over the unauthorised practice and "the widespread disappointment at the apparent ineffectiveness of the Law Society to act".
The society, the ruling body for solicitors, says that competition for criminal business is "unprecedented" and is creating an environment in which unacceptable practices thrive.
Some €29.3m in criminal legal aid payments were made last year, compared to €60.3m in 2009. The society says that as a result of a 40pc across-the-board cut in legal-aid payments, enormous pressure exists on criminal practitioners to keep their practices afloat.
"That pressure is added to, especially in the District Court, by an influx of two new cohorts of competing solicitors, namely those who have previously not undertaken work but whose own areas of practice are stagnant," said the report of the Regulation 2013 Review Group.
The report by the group – established on foot of a motion before the Law Society's AGM last November – states that the unauthorised practice of solicitors touting for business at courts "has dramatically increased in recent years".
It says: "It appears particularly to affect vulnerable non-national clients, who misunderstand an improper professional approach as being officially sanctioned."
Yesterday, the director general of the Law Society, Ken Murphy, was coy about when the society would deploy the secret shoppers.
He said: "It would be contrary to the effectiveness of the so-called 'secret shopper' approach to announce in advance when the society proposes to do this."
Mr Murphy added: "This is all about protecting vulnerable members of the public from unscrupulous and unethical conduct by a very small minority of solicitors."