Farm Ireland

Tuesday 24 October 2017

Only the lawyers win with our current legal and court system

John Shirley

Once I went to a wedding which had a Greek input. During the reception we were all furnished with pins. Instead of bringing a wedding present, the plan was that we would pin money notes onto the bride and groom. One note was pinned onto another eventually creating streamers of notes hanging from the bride and groom as they danced around.

I was reminded of this scene recently on a visit to the Four Courts in Dublin. As the lawyers and barristers crossed the open square in the Four Courts, their gowns billowed in the wind just like the cash streamers at the Greek wedding.

It's not appropriate or fair to suggest that all the lawyers in Ireland are dripping with wealth. There are some who are prepared to adopt and support a cause even where the chance of getting paid is slim. I have encountered such brilliantly conscientious people. Also, there is the occasional pro-bono service where solicitors and barristers will give their time free of charge.

But the overall image of the Irish legal profession and Civil Courts is one of exorbitant charges, restrictive outdated practices, delay, inefficiency and resistance to reform. All of this combines to damage Ireland's competitiveness and can deprive individual citizens of their rights.

As major property stakeholders, farmers have a vested interest in the stability of the State's institutions and the efficient administration of the law.

But 'good law' in Ireland is prohibitively expensive, so much so that a bad settlement outside the courts is often preferable to going through the full legal process.

Reform of the legal system has been identified by our new IMF/EU/ECB masters as a priority for Ireland's economic recovery. In the recent past, Irish governments and their agencies have nourished the legal monster by paying vast monies for legal advice to outside law firms despite having a coterie of our own highly paid lawyers and solicitors in the civil service. The absolute Klondike for Ireland's top lawyers arrived with the spate of tribunals.

To give the Justice Minister Alan Shatter his due, he has made a start to unravel the legal monolith.

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At the time of writing, I don't know the outcome of the two constitutional referenda on judges' pay and the Oireachtas investigation committees, but I hope that both will be passed.

At least, I voted yes to both proposed changes.

I do not buy into the claim that individual rights and freedoms are at risk should the elected Oireachtas committees get stronger powers of investigation.

Rather, I would argue that it is the practices, the delays and costs of the court system which is denying many citizens of their rights. Bringing a case to the High Court is really only an option for the extremely wealthy or for those on free legal aid. The average family person with a small business or farm could be financially ruined if he or she lost a case in the High Court. I would prefer to take my chances with the politicians than face all the paraphernalia surrounding the courts.

At least we can sack the politicians at the next election.

During my short visit to the Four Courts, I was struck with the busyness of the place and reckoned that, for the legalites, this could be an enjoyable and highly lucrative corner of Ireland. The presence of ex TDs Michael McDowell and Barry Andrews showed the easy transition from the Dail back to the Bar.

But the club-type atmosphere where barristers, solicitors and even judges are all great pals with each other does nothing to allay fears that John Citizen would be fleeced if caught in their nets. And their numbers are ever expanding. In the past 40 years the number of High Court judges has jumped from eight to 38.

The Supreme Court has grown from five to eight and there are about 2,000 barristers in the country.

The wigs and gowns worn by lawyers and judges have come in for criticism but at least these symbols are not costing the taxpayer anything.

Having tipstaffs waiting on every judge does seem an unnecessary expense. On the day of my visit, the High Court President announced that wigs and gowns were being made optional from that moment.

One of the greatest criticisms of our legal system is the delay in getting hearings and the constant adjournment of cases. As is said, "justice delayed is justice denied". Indeed we have seen wealthy parties, and even the State itself, using legal mechanisms to drag out cases.

Often this is done to a level where the plaintiff is forced into throwing in the towel, even though their case looked just.

Some effort has been made to speed up larger commercial cases which involve more than €1m but this is of no help to the smaller plaintiffs.

Another positive change on the court scene, and one that was obvious on my visit to the Four Courts, is the growing proportion of females in the business. Women are making their way up the profession and now hold three of the very top legal posts in the country. These are Lord Chief Justice Susan Denham, Attorney General Maire Whelan and now the DPP Claire Loftus.

There are some indications that these ladies are taking a more pro-public stance on issues.

Hopefully, their input plus the involvement of the IMF and Co will lead to a legal regime that is more user friendly and more suited to a 21st Century Ireland.

Frank Rath

Frank Rath (63), who passed away last week after a long illness, put a lot of money into the pockets of Irish farmers. That is a big statement but it was the good fortune for Ireland that the Department of Agriculture's Frank Rath was centrally involved in the introduction of the REPS scheme which eventually was taken up by over 60,000 farmers.

Born a Wexfordman, Frank had a background, and personal involvement, in strong commercial farming. But when EU Commissioner Ray McSharry's 1992 CAP reforms included the agri environment "accompanying measures", he was the first person in the Department to see the potential that REPS was to become.

Using a scheme he had seen in Rhineland Pfalz in Germany as a template, he got a farmer-friendly environment scheme accepted by the EU.

The rest is history.

Alongside his professional expertise, Frank was a musician, a member of an All-Ireland-winning Macra cross-country quiz team and a most likeable classmate.

Thank you Frank.

Indo Farming