To tackle high legal costs we must end restrictive practices

with IVAN Yates

Published 14/09/2011 | 11:35

Since 2006 average earnings have been reduced by more than 25%. An exception to the rule is an increase in legal service costs, which have risen by 12%. National Competitiveness Council reports that we are the fourth most expensive country in the world to enforce business transactions to the courts. The Competition Authority produced a blueprint, five years ago, that would enhance productivity, efficiency and cut costs of legal work. Most recommendations have gathered dust to date.

In the US, an attorney can be both a practising advocate in court and do regular contract/conveyancing functions. There isn't demarcation between barristers and solicitors. We have rigid restrictive practices that mean you can only access barristers through a solicitor. Litigants are faced with the double costs of junior and senior counsel. There is no transparency about fees, which often transpire to be a multiple of early indicative costs. Resistance to reform also extends to courtroom practices and procedures.

Sitting times and holiday arrangements for all courts, above District courts, are ridiculous. In the UK there is no summer break. We close down for August, September, Easter and Christmas breaks, as well as a fortnight off at Whit. Superior Courts only sit from 11am-1pm & 2-4pm. This limited timetable results in minimal output. Consequently, waiting periods for High Court hearings and Supreme Court cases can take up to 4 years and 3 years respectively. Cumulatively, an appealed case can take several years to be determined. This detracts from doing business here.

The Judicial Council Bill to oversee the judiciary has not been enacted after 10 years of procrastination. A training monopoly for the legal profession still exists at Kings Inn/Law Society. Self-regulation prevails. Critics of our administration of justice system are fobbed off with assertions about the paramount need for independence of the judiciary and courts. Of course, absolute independent discretion on decision-making is essential. However, accountability in the areas of pay, disciplinary procedures, performance levels are necessary in a democracy.

Ordinary citizens are intimidated by the aura of courtroom etiquette. Horsehair wigs and gowns should be replaced with business suits-as is the case in every other formal walk of life, from churches to Parliament. Continuation with traditions such as Tip Staff and references to 'my Lord' are antiquated. Alan Shatter must now confront these vested interests. A new Legal Services Bill has been in gestation for many years. We can readily preserve the integrity of our judicial processes, while modernising many 19th-century practices.

FAIRNESS? NOT FOR FOOLS

We hear a lot from our politicians about tough times ahead, with three further austerity budgets. Bitter pills have had to be swallowed of job losses, pay cuts, stealth taxes, new charges and reduced living standards. Increasingly, there seems to be a dichotomy between the impact on top echelons of society and regular punters. Entrepreneurs, with failed businesses, and investors with decimated asset values have to suck up shattered situations. Contrast that with the fate of our chief culprits.

Former CEO of Anglo Irish bank, David Drumm is not cooperating with the gardai. There are no plans to extradite him back from the USA. It's likely he'll never face charges here for his role in the demise of the bank-costing the taxpayer €29.3 billion. Meanwhile, just over 540 people were jailed last year after failing to pay fines for minor offences such as parking, no TV or dog licence. 6,681 people were jailed for non-payment of court-ordered fines, in figures released last February. White collar crime pays.

Next up, most senior civil servant, Dermot McCarthy. As secretary to the Cabinet and secretary general at Department of the Taoiseach, he was the most powerful public servant over the past decade. He was a significant advocate and architect of social partnership, benchmarking, bank guarantee and bailout fiascos. His reward? A severance package worth €713k and an annual pension of €142k. Fatcats, who carry significant culpability for weak regulation, wrong policy options and poor judgement, are richly rewarded.

The latest mismatch relates to 450 hospital consultants who are to be paid €100 million collectively for 'Historic Rest Days '. This means in the year before their retirement, they get full pay for no work or get two years annual salary, by being their own locum replacement. This apparently can't be evaded because of contractual obligations. Yet, terms and conditions of employee contracts are being shredded for low paid workers on a daily basis. Labour said, during the election, "Fairness" would be the cornerstone of their role in government. There's precious little evidence of any change in an Upstairs, Downstairs narrative.

TIP BIT

First leg of the autumn double is the Cambridgeshire at Newmarket. I fancy Michael Stoute's Labarinto at 11/1. This improving three year old is set to carry 8-6. The Dansili colt won well at Goodwood and will be ideally suited to this stiff nine furlongs.

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