Failure of self-regulation 'not new revelation'
IT would be crass and insensitive to suggest that issues relating to solicitors' charges are the most important concern of claimants before the Residential Redress Board.
In agreeing to comment on callers' complaints to Joe Duffy's programme about overcharging, it must be stressed that I do so only in the wider context. One cannot hope to address the anger, hurt and ongoing pain of victims of child abuse.
The most surprising factor is that people are so surprised. Revelation of this failure of self-regulation is not new. Since introduction of the Solicitors (Amendment) Act 1994 it is unlawful for solicitors to deduct a percentage of a clients' compensation as the basis of any charges. But laws are no good if we do not have active enforcement. It has been known for over 10 years that the 1994 legislation is not being respected by all members of the profession. Among recommendations made by the Motor Insurance Advisory Board in its report published in April 2002 were the following two:
"That the draft 1998 legislation on advertising by solicitors be progressed, with the additional requirement that all advertisements quote a revised rule by the Law Society summarising Section 68 of the Solicitors (Amendment) Act 1994 which prevents a percentage being deducted by lawyers from the compensation awarded to claimants. If an entitlement to advertise for personal injury claims is secured under competition law, that sufficient information be displayed to enable consumers to make price comparisons between professionals."
And: "That, aside from legislation, the Incorporated Law Society of Ireland as a service to the public should require all advertisements by their members to state that a lawyer is not permitted to seek a percentage of a claimant's compensation and that such action is regarded as misconduct under Section 68 of the Solicitors (Amendment) Act 1994."
These recommendations were adopted in the Agreed Programme for Government in October 2002. Every Golden Pages advertisement for solicitors now has a warning notice which reads "in contentious business, a solicitor may not calculate fees or other charges as a percentage of any award or settlement". This did not fix the problem.
Subsequently, in the June 2004 Competition Authority report on restrictive practices in the professions, research indicated there was less than full compliance with S68(2) of the Solicitors (Amendment) Act 1994. Some have other options in motor crashes and workplace accidents. Those with straightforward personal injury claims can go to the Personal Injuries Assessment Board at a refundable fee of ?50 to get compensation assessed on the basis of medical evidence without an oral hearing. Claimants are not awarded legal costs in such cases.
If they employ an adviser at their own expense, some solicitors levy a fixed fee of ?399, but again the charge cannot be a percentage of the compensation. This is of little consolation to claimants before the Residential Redress Board. In the interests of the honourable vast majority of the legal profession, and to protect citizens, the latest media revelations must be addressed without delay.
� Dorothea Dowling is the chairperson of Personal Injuries Assessment Board and is formerly of Motor Insurance Advisory Board.