'Don't expect overnight fall in legal costs,' warns watchdog
The chairman of the legal services watchdog says it cannot guarantee an overnight end to the issue of high legal costs for consumers.
But Legal Services Regulatory Authority (LSRA) chairman Don Thornhill hopes there will be a change in behaviour and increased competition when new business models are introduced for the legal professions.
He made the comments at the Oireachtas Justice Committee, where TDs voiced concerns about high legal costs and the slow pace with which the LSRA's functions are being rolled out.
Although the independent authority came into being in October 2016, it has yet to begin taking complaints from the public about inadequate service, excessive charging, or other matters of concern.
Complaints are currently dealt with by the Law Society, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, which holds public hearings, and the Barristers Professional Conduct Tribunal, which does not.
From the middle of next year it is planned that all complaints will be handled through the LSRA, with the most serious coming before a Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal that will sit in public.
Independents4Change TD Clare Daly said it had taken the authority a year to get a chief executive, it had only just published a strategic plan and had yet to find a permanent office.
Mr Thornhill explained the LSRA had started out with few staff and with obligations under the Legal Services Regulation Act to produce reports on the introduction of limited liability partnerships and partnerships between solicitors and barristers.
It was "a matter of frustration" things were taking so long, he said. "Ideally, we should not have begun without staff. We should not have had the statutory deadlines we had to meet for carrying out consultations, but those were requirements of the act," said Mr Thornhill.
He said the LSRA's disciplinary functions required "very careful attention to detail and planning", but it was determined to meet a target of having these up and running by the second quarter of next year.
On the issue of high legal costs, Ms Daly said the Medical Protection Society, which provides indemnity cover for most hospital consultants, had said brief fees sought by barristers in some medical negligence cases were twice those charged in the UK. She cited an Irish case where a €30,000 brief fee was charged, double what a QC would seek in England.
Her Independents4Change colleague Mick Wallace observed 'The Lawyer', a specialist legal publication, had described Ireland as the "least transparent jurisdiction in Europe" from a data collection perspective.
The points raised by the TDs were highlighted in a legal costs investigation published by the Irish Independent last October.
Mr Thornhill said the authority would be taking complaints about "disproportionate or inappropriate costs". He said it was also intended the introduction of legal partnerships and limited liability partnerships would change "competitive and cost dynamics".
"Can we guarantee there will be dramatic change overnight? We can't guarantee that but we would certainly hope there would be significant changes in behaviour," he said.
Responding to a query from Mr Wallace, Mr Thornhill said legislation did not state the LSRA could regulate fees that are being charged.
He said a separate body, the Legal Costs Adjudicator, was being set up.
"One would hope that over time that would establish, in a sense, what would be seen as reference prices," he said.
"The consumer would be aware of what the going rate is for provision for certain types of legal services."