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Legal fees still among highest in world

IRISH lawyers are still able to charge some of the highest legal fees in the world simply "because they can".

This is despite the fact that there are large numbers of recently graduated barristers and solicitors out of work.

Competition Authority board member Declan Purcell was yesterday asked why lawyers' fees were still so high at a time when recently graduated solicitors were unable to find employment.

"The first answer is -- and please don't think this is too glib -- it's because they can," he told the Dail Public Accounts committee.

He told the committee there had been no end to the restrictive practices, such as lack of fee information, restricted entry to the profession and limited competition between lawyers. Mr Purcell also said solicitors had the right to hold on to their clients' files, even if that client decided to transfer to another solicitor.

"There's no other profession in the world I know of where that is the case. That's inevitably going to lead to higher costs for the person paying the piper," he added.

A report by the World Bank last year found that legal fees in Ireland were among the highest in the developed world.

The committee yesterday heard that just one of the 15 recommendations made by the Competition Authority to reduce costs three years ago had been implemented -- that was the abolition of the requirement to pass an Irish language exam.

Labour TD Tommy Broughan asked if this was because the Department of Justice -- which was responsible for implementing these recommendations -- was still acting as part of the "great lawyers' trade union".

Mr Purcell told him the fact that only one recommendation had been implemented "is the answer to your question".

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Committee chairman, Fine Gael TD Bernard Allen, told the Department of Justice's representative at the meeting to take note of the committee's concern about its "inadequate response" to the report.

The Competition Authority's key recommendation to introduce an independent Legal Services Commission to fight for the rights of consumers was not implemented. Mr Purcell said this meant the Law Society (solicitors) and the Bar Council (barristers) were still regulating themselves.

"The legal profession is probably the last profession in Ireland which is holding out for a self-regulatory system," he said.

The committee heard the Government planned to set up a Legal Services Ombudsman funded by the legal profession.

But this person will have no powers to investigate complaints, only to tell the Law Society and Bar Council to speed up their inquiries or to review their decisions again.

"In terms of the scale of what needs to be done, it really is only small-scale," Mr Purcell said.

Mr Purcell told Fianna Fail TD Michael McGrath that the Competition Authority's inquiry into costs three years ago had uncovered restrictive practices.

"It led us to conclude there were too many protections there and shelters that protect professionals from the vagaries of the market."

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