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Shatter fought with former AG in attempt to get barrister status

Minister wanted senior counsel rank as solicitor

Published 02/12/2011 | 05:00

JUSTICE Minister Alan Shatter pushed to be recognised as the equivalent of a senior barrister despite not having a barrister's qualification.

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Letters seen by the Irish Independent reveal how Mr Shatter became embroiled in an extraordinary war of words with a former AG when his request was shot down.

He made the request to the Bar Council, the ruling body for barristers, while he was an opposition TD and working as a family law solicitor.

But Mr Shatter was rebuffed by the then chairman of the council, the late Rory Brady, because he was only a solicitor and not a barrister.

Mr Brady, who later became Attorney General, told Mr Shatter he needed to study to be a barrister at King's Inns before he could be considered for elevation to senior counsel status, or "taking silk".

But Mr Shatter didn't take kindly to the advice and a series of letters seen by the Irish Independent reveals he accused Mr Brady of being "intemperate" and "distorting his request".

The legal dust-up occurred between 2000 and 2002, when Mr Shatter was FG's frontbench spokesman on justice.

Now that he is in power, Mr Shatter is changing the law so that solicitors can apply to become senior counsel.

Recognition of Mr Shatter as having equivalent status as that of a senior barrister would have allowed him to charge senior counsel rates -- which can far outstrip solicitors' fees.

However, Mr Shatter argued that overall costs would be cheaper for clients if they were able to hire a solicitor as an advocate, as it would lead to a smaller legal team being hired.

The seeds of the spat were sown in February 2000 when Mr Shatter wrote to then Bar Council chairman Liam McKechnie -- now a High Court judge -- asking whether he could "lead", or instruct, junior counsel in court.

He said he was making the request for permission to act in the same role as a senior counsel after junior barristers hired by his firm, Gallagher Shatter, were reluctant to take instructions from him on this basis without approval from their ruling body.

Mr McKechnie's successor, Mr Brady, replied to Mr Shatter in March 2001 advising him that he was "in effect" asking the Bar Council to allow him to act in a case as a senior counsel.

It was in this letter that Mr Brady, who served as Attorney General between 2002 and 2007, told Mr Shatter that he could always study to become a barrister.

The letter prompted a furious reply by Mr Shatter, who said he was "astonished" at the "distorted interpretation" of his initial request and denying that he sought to be designated a senior counsel.

Mr Brady fired off an equally robust reply. "It is quite clear that your request as a solicitor, acting as an advocate, to lead a junior counsel is in substance a request to be recognised as a senior counsel," he said.

Motion

Mr Brady denied that the Bar Council distorted Mr Shatter's request and the dispute came to an end when Mr Shatter abandoned his quest.

A year later, he unsuccessfully tabled a motion to amend the Solicitor's Amendment Bill to remove any doubt that solicitors and barristers could jointly present cases in court.

But now the issue has come full circle as Mr Shatter is changing the law so that solicitors can apply to become senior counsel.

As well as solicitors applying to "take silk," legal clients will be able to decide whether they want a solicitor or barrister to represent them in court.

Mr Shatter refused to answer a series of detailed questions about the dispute posed by the Irish Independent.

A spokesman for the minister said that the proposed changes in policy were based on a 2006 report on the legal profession by the Competition Authority.

Last night the Bar Council said plans to allow solicitors to "take silk" and to allow clients to instruct either branch of the profession were a matter for the Government.

Since 2004, solicitors in the UK can apply to become Queen's (Senior) Counsel.

Irish Independent

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