New legal watchdog 'must not be rushed'
The new legal services watchdog says it is likely to be early next year before it has the capacity to deal with complaints against solicitors and barristers.
Legal Services Regulatory Authority (LSRA) chief executive Brian Doherty said considerable work still needs to be done before it is ready to examine complaints.
In his first interview since being appointed last September, Mr Doherty revealed the authority is in the process of expanding its staff.
The authority came into being in October 2016. But Mr Doherty, a qualified barrister who has held senior roles at the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, said the LSRA had to give priority to other aspects of its remit throughout the past year. This included meeting obligations set down in legislation to produce reports on the introduction of limited liability partnerships and partnerships between solicitors and barristers.
Mr Doherty said the authority had further work to do in these areas before it would be turning its attention to handling complaints.
He said that "in an ideal world the LSRA would have been staffed up fully" from the beginning, but because of the independence of the authority it was felt it should grow itself and recruit its own staff.
"Our priority is getting the LSRA up and functioning as soon as humanly possible, fulfilling the broad remit that it has got, making sure the interests of the public and consumers in particular are protected," he said.
"But this has to be carefully managed. The nightmare scenario for me would be to rush into something that would be ad hoc or haphazard that could serve to undermine protections for the consumer.
"There are plenty of international examples of where regulation or oversight has been rushed. I don't intend for us to fail. I intend that whenever we start, we will be ready for business."
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. Under the new regime, all complaints will be handled through the LSRA, with the most serious ending up before a new Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal, which will conduct hearings in public.
The new complaints process, which can examine allegations of inadequate service, excessive charging and misconduct, is long-awaited.
There has been much debate about the current system, with the Competition Authority calling for the establishment of an independent commission as far back as 2006. Although the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal is independent of the Law Society, the society filters complaints it receives, deciding which ones warrant referral to the tribunal.