Shatter claims lower legal bills are on way
CONSUMERS should see lower legal bills thanks to greater transparency and competition brought about by reforms of the profession, Justice Minister Alan Shatter claimed yesterday.
But the moves agreed at Cabinet yesterday involve the creation of three new quangos to monitor the legal profession, which solicitors claim could actually end up costing consumers more.
Mr Shatter said the new Legal Services Regulation Bill would "blow the cobwebs" out of the legal profession and create independent oversight for the first time.
Crucially, it would make it easier for customers to get a realistic breakdown of the costs in advance of and during any case, with details of barristers' fees to be mandatory for the first time.
Conveyancing, wills and district court cases were all areas where consumers would benefit from more accurate assessment of costs in advance, and where unexpected costs would have to be fully justified.
However, it was impossible to put a figure on the potential savings for consumers, as it would be down to making the legal profession more competitive, and "competition drives costs down", Mr Shatter said.
The days of solicitors taking a percentage cut of out of court compensation awards will be numbered as, while they can still take cases on a "no foal, no fee" basis, the amount charged in a successful case will have to represent their real costs, Mr Shatter said.
Arbitrary fees such as charging junior counsel rates at two-thirds the senior counsel rate were being abolished.
Disputes will be investigated by a new independent regulator, which will replace the current system where complaints about solicitors and barristers are investigated by their own professional bodies.
This new Legal Services Regulatory Authority will be appointed by the minister and will have a majority of non-lawyer lay members, while there will be a separate Legal Professions Disciplinary Tribunal to deal with complaints of professional misconduct.
There will also be a new Legal Costs Adjudicator to replace the existing Taxing Master in investigating costs disputes.
The Law Society said it was concerned the new system could lead to higher regulatory costs being levied on lawyers -- who will fund the new quangos -- and ultimately these would have to be passed on to consumers.
"This appears to be creating a number of monstrous and voracious new quangos, which does not bode well for costs," said Law Society director general Ken Murphy.
A similar form of regulation had been rejected in England and Wales on the basis that it was too expensive and also that it gave the government too much control over the legal system, which had to function independently of government, he said.
Mr Shatter said that while the professional bodies would fund the new regulators, they would make savings from no longer having to carry out their own self-regulation.
The EU/IMF had made reform of the legal profession a condition of their bailout deal in order to reduce legal costs to consumers.
However, the new measure kicks to touch on other costcutting recommendations to abolish the distinction between barristers and solicitors, and to allow barristers form partnerships with other professionals such as accountants.
It says only that these and the creation of a separate conveyancing profession will be considered by the new Legal Services Regulatory Authority.
The bill also says there is no requirement for barristers to wear wigs and gowns, but tailor Louis Copeland, who supplies these garments, said most preferred to do so "as people have respect when they see them".