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Wednesday 1 October 2014

Legal reforms agreed by Government

John Downing, Political Correspondent

Published 28/01/2014 | 11:17

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Justice Minister Alan Shatter

THE Government has reached agreement on the biggest changes to the legal system in the history of the State.

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Ministers discussed the highly contentious Legal Services Bill at the Cabinet meeting this morning.

Differences between Fine Gael and the Labour Party on the bill have been sorted out, Independent.ie has learned.

Government sources say agreement was reached between the parties on amendments to the legislation – more than two years after it was first published.

The controversial legislation has caused tensions between the Coalition parties.

The divisions have centred on the proposal to introduce ‘one-stop-shop’ legal practices where barristers and solicitors operate out of the same business firms.

The legislation also provides for an independent legal regulator.

The outcome of the deliberations between Fine Gael and the Labour Party will be teased out at Cabinet but both sides are understood to be happy with the outcome.

The proposal resulted in a clash between Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore and Justice Minister Alan Shatter when it last came to Cabinet.

Negotiations on the revised legal reform legislation Legal Services Bill continued last night, with well placed sources saying there was every chance the text will go for Cabinet approval this morning.

But even if it does go to Cabinet, there’s no guarantee it will be approved.

The plan agreed with the EU-ECB-IMF Troika, and later driven forward by Justice Minister Alan Shatter, aims to cut the cost of the courts system and reduce lawyers’ fees. 

It includes plans for ‘one-stop-shop’ legal practices where barristers and solicitors operate out of the same business firms and also provides for an independent legal regulator.

The new draft law was the subject of intensive lobbying by lawyers, especially barristers. It was also the focus of some very tetchy exchanges between Fine Gael and Labour with the latter forced to deny allegations that they were defending barristers’ interests.

Reports of clashes during negotiations between Mr Shatter and Mr Gilmore were also denied.

Last night, sources in both Government parties remained tight-lipped and both sides notably avoided claiming victory.

The 25-month delay in producing the revised draft of the law was heavily criticised on many occasions in the Troika’s periodic reports and there was speculation that internal government disagreement slowed it down. But government officials repeatedly rejected this and said it was delayed by giving priority to drafting and putting through the Personal Insolvency Bill last spring.

“The work was handled by the same team of officials. Quite correctly priority was given to the insolvency measures,” one source said last night.

Both government parties hope that they can take kudos from the new legislation.  Writing in this newspaper just four days ago the Transport Minister Leo Varadkar described it as a major reform.

“The Legal Services Bill constitutes the most sweeping changes to the legal profession since the foundation of the State with major changes occurring in the courts system, too, such as the establishment of a Court of Appeal and Family Courts,” Mr Varadkar argued.

The bill was first published in November 2011 but after completing second stage it went back to Cabinet for considerable amendment.  It has remained stalled ever since with periodic assurances from government that it was being dealt and increasingly shrill criticisms from the opposition about delays.

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