Monday 26 June 2017

Shatter's legal firm in battle over divorce fees

Former client of minister disputes bill in complex and expensive case

Alan Shatter: stepped down from firm last March. Photo: Tony Gavin

Dearbhail McDonald Legal Editor

JUSTICE Minister Alan Shatter is locked in a legal battle over the size of his law firm's bill to a former client in a divorce case.

Mr Shatter was one of two senior solicitors within Gallagher Shatter, the law firm he founded, who worked on what is believed to be one of the most complex and expensive divorce cases ever.

The dispute over fees in the case comes as Mr Shatter is finalising plans to tackle legal costs and reform of the legal profession as part of the EU/IMF bailout deal.

The controversial Legal Services Bill, which is aimed at reducing legal costs and boosting competition in the profession, is due to come before the Cabinet today.

However, publication of the final draft of the bill may be deferred because of concerns that it goes way beyond the demands being made by the EU and IMF.

Mr Shatter stepped down from the law firm last March when he was appointed Justice Minister.

His other colleague who worked on the disputed fees case -- details of which cannot be revealed to protect the identities of the spouses and children -- has also left the firm.

Gallagher Shatter, which has sued some former clients for non-payment of fees in the past, withdrew from the divorce case in 2007. The client then continued the case without legal representation.

Mr Shatter is widely regarded as one of the country's leading family law experts.

As a solicitor who also acted as counsel for clients in court hearings, he charged some clients an hourly rate of some €635 including VAT in 2007 at the height of the boom, according to engagement letters seen by the Irish Independent.

This hourly rate, €525 plus VAT at 21 per cent, compares to an hourly consultation rate of IR£350 plus VAT at 20 per cent he charged to some clients in 2001.

Gallagher Shatter last night said that if any client had a dispute with regard to fees, the firm did "everything possible to address any issues that arise", advised the client of the options available and did everything possible to resolve such disputes amicably.

"At an early stage, it is the usual practice of this firm in the context of any litigation in which we are engaged to detail in writing to a client the position with regard to legal fees and the factors applicable to the charging of legal fees and the arrangements for payment of fees due," the firm said.

Overhaul

The Law Society, the ruling body for solicitors, will hold a special meeting early next month to debate the fallout of plans by Mr Shatter to overhaul the legal profession.

Last night, John Costello, president of the Law Society, issued a bulletin to more than 10,000 solicitors in which he warned that the proposed Legal Services Bill would have "a major impact" on the profession and could lead to higher fees for clients if the cost of regulation was increased.

The planned meeting comes as government ministers are divided on the content of the Legal Services Bill, which has been discussed several times at Cabinet.

There are concerns that the independence of any new regulatory body would be compromised by powers granted, under the bill, to Mr Shatter to appoint members to the regulator and to make it answerable to him.

Mr Costello revealed that the society sought a meeting with Mr Shatter in early September to discuss the bill, but this was not granted.

As well as a new regulatory authority, the Government is considering a plan to allow solicitors and barristers to form business partnerships with other professionals -- a move that critics say could undermine their independent duties to the courts.

"There are major public policy issues involved and there is a feeling that there has not been full consultation about the potential consequences," said one senior legal source.

Mr Costello said that the Law Society was ready to embrace reform, adding "solicitors are by no means opposed to all change".

Irish Independent

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