Competition chief condemns lack of reform in legal system
THE outgoing head of the Competition Authority has launched a withering attack on the country's legal system, and accused the Department of Justice of failing to reform the legal profession to benefit consumers.
Bill Prasifka, who leaves the job in April after four years in charge, also said solicitors and barristers "had too much clout" with the Government and he warned that the days of self-regulation were over.
Mr Prasifka had particular scorn for the Department of Justice, which he said had "refused" to drive reform of the legal profession despite a series of reports stating changes needed to be made.
Although he said some government departments were "engaging" with the authority, he singled out the Department of Justice for being "less than forthcoming" about reform.
Mr Prasifka recommended in 2006 that an independent commission should replace the self-regulation system operated by solicitors and barristers, and that control of education and entry to the profession should be removed from these self-governing bodies.
He has also called for the creation of specialists to arrange the legal paperwork required for property transactions to bring down the price of conveyancing, and said the practice of setting junior barristers' fees at two-thirds that of senior counsel should be abolished.
However, the reforms have not happened, and yesterday he told RTE's 'This Week' programme the way in which the legal profession was regulated was "obviously wrong".
"The Tanaiste has made a strong push to have all our recommendations to go to government departments, but that depends on the willingness of the government department to engage with us. The Department of Justice, in terms of our recommendations regarding the legal profession, has been less than forthcoming.
"It's very important that the reform of the legal profession is looked at very seriously, and we cannot take as a starting point the positions of the legal bodies. We have to look at this from a public interest perspective. Every time an outsider looks at the way we regulate the legal profession, it is obviously wrong. The era of self-regulation is over. The Bar Council doesn't even have a statutory basis."
Asked if the legal profession had "too much clout", he added: "You got it in one. All we can do is continue to highlight it, but it's up to the Department of Justice to implement reform."
But Justice Minister Dermot Ahern said if changes were needed, they would be made.
The position of Legal Services Ombudsman had been created, which had full powers to examine complaints, and the minister said he was of the view that all complaints should be independently examined.
"There needs to be competition and if a requirement occurs in this respect I've no doubt the Government will look at it again," he added.
The Competition Authority's annual report, published yesterday, said 10 people were convicted of price-fixing offences relating to the sale of Citroen cars last year. Another victory was a successful contempt of court finding against publicans' groups for introducing a price freeze in December 2008 at a time of deflation.
Mr Prasifka also said that laws had to be enacted to protect people who claimed that supermarkets charged "hello money" to stock particular items. At the moment, the courts could only declare that such payments were wrong, but there was no remedy to have the money returned.