Saturday 19 April 2014

Tough times indeed for solicitors but cry of media hostility is last refuge of desperate

The case of fraudster Thomas Byrne has had a negative effect on his profession

IN his just published maiden interview in 'Gazette', the magazine for Ireland's solicitors, the newly elected president of the Law Society complains that the solicitor profession is "facing a largely hostile media that feels it's not good news to promote solicitors".

The cry of media hostility is often the last refuge of the desperate: the newly appointed chief executive of the Central Remedial Clinic James Nugent deployed it as his first weapon of retaliatory choice in the wake of the disastrous top-ups controversy.

Rallying the troops, who are reeling in the wake of the jailing of former solicitor Thomas Byrne, society president John P Shaw said: "It's certainly not going to sell newspapers if you are promoting solicitors in a positive light."

Under fire from its members -- a recent survey revealed that solicitors wanted "better representation" -- Mr Shaw revealed that the society has hired Teri Kelly, the former communications manager of the IBRC (formerly Anglo Irish Bank), as its new director of representation and member services.

"If she (Teri Kelly) can sell Anglo as a good news story, she can sell anybody as a good news story!" quipped Shaw in the 'Gazette'.


Incidentally, the victims of Thomas Byrne, now serving an eight- year jail term for a €52m fraud, don't want a good news story.

But they do want a good account of how Byrne, who first fell under the ruling body's radar in 2001, was able to perpetrate 50 separate counts of fraud whilst under the supervision of the society.

John Shaw can't be blamed for trying to shore up confidence.

Solicitors, whose activities are key in any economy, have borne the brunt of an unprecedented insurance crisis.

Solicitors, as the Irish Independent and others have repeatedly pointed out, have suffered hugely as a result of the activity of a small handful of fraudulent solicitors during the boom years.

Solicitors are paying the price for the sins of their brethren and reckless lenders through unemployment, emigration, higher professional indemnity fees and reputational damage.

Every solicitor is also paying more than €750 a year into the Solicitors Compensation Fund to pay victims of fraudulent solicitors such as Thomas Byrne.

In the last five years, almost €50m worth of claims have hit the fund, which has so far paid out €17.7m

Sadly, positive vibes are hard to come by -- as well as Byrne, the garda fraud bureau is investigating at least 10 more solicitors for alleged financial crimes.

The bureau is also dealing with at least 12 separate complaints under anti money-laundering legislation.

The Law Society, whose director general Ken Murphy is reputed to be on an annual remuneration package north of €400,000 -- the Society doesn't reveal the pay of top execs for reasons of confidentiality -- is no mere victim.

It is a powerful lobby group that is well versed in managing its message.

The society has even managed to do what its barrister cousins could not, by securing a spectacular coup in the face of plans by Justice Minister Alan Shatter's "revolutionary" plans to overhaul the legal profession.

When he first published the Legal Services Regulation Bill in 2011, Mr Shatter (a solicitor by profession) vowed to strip solicitors and barristers of their right to self regulate.

The Bar Council, the ruling body for barristers, took the fact of independent regulation -- but not other aspects, namely its cost and membership -- largely on the chin.

But the society, which employs 60 people in its regulatory division, cried foul and lobbied the Government hard to dispel "the myth of regulatory failure".

Let us continue to regulate fraud and dishonesty, the society implored, adding that it was best placed to root out rogues.

To the fury of barristers (who don't yet handle client funds), the society secured the concession.

Mr Shatter, who is partial to trumpet blasts about his reforms, quietly confirmed the U-turn last week when pressed by the Irish Independent.

The mistake the Law Society has made is to confuse media hostility with public scrutiny. Perhaps it should concentrate its message on telling us why it should be trusted, rather than shooting the messenger.

Irish Independent

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