Shatter faces almighty battle to reform our legal system

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The Dail session which started last Wednesday might prove itself to be one of the most important and crucial sittings this Government has during its term.

Though it has now been in power for just over six months, the Government has yet to flesh out, in any great detail, how it proposes to tackle the problems facing us. That, hopefully, is what they will do between now and Christmas.

It will be a tight schedule with a range of vitally important issues competing with each other for proper debate and consideration. More careful management and clearer thinking by the Government before the summer may have avoided this growing backlog.

An example of this is the important issue of JLC reform. Confusion and mixed messages within the Cabinet left the issue in limbo over the summer.

While there are many important issues I will be watching carefully over the coming months, one in particular stands out. This is how the Government tackles the issue of reducing legal costs.

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has committed himself to moving speedily on it. I hope he does. This is partly in response to the obligations in the EU/IMF deal, but also partly as a response to calls from businesses that the entire legal system be made to recognise the demands and needs of a competitive 21st century environment.

It will not be an easy task. Shatter will need all the friends he can get in these endeavours as he will meet great resistance from the legal profession and its many friends who are deeply embedded in the backroom teams of the two Government parties.

If the minister comes up with a strong package of real reforms he will find no better ally in the Dail than me in helping to drive them through.

Many of the basic changes needed were set out in a report produced by the National Competitiveness Council (NCC) and Forfas last June, entitled: The Costs of Doing Business in Ireland.

Chapter six of the report dealt with the costs of professional services, particularly the high level of legal costs here compared with other countries. Among other measures, it recommended the establishment of an independent regulator for the legal profession, the establishment of a Legal Costs Assessment Office that would assess costs on the basis of work done rather than on the size of awards.

It also recommended scrapping the general practice of allowing junior counsels’ fees at two-thirds that of senior counsel; the creation of a single-tier counsel system and allowing suitably qualified professionals to provide conveyancing services in addition to solicitors.

The report is by no means exhaustive. Other outdated practices, not specifically covered in the report, also need to be urgently addressed.

These include the length of the court vacations, which run at about four months a year — just as they did back in the 19th century — and the backlogs in getting court dates, especially appeals to the Supreme Court.

I could go on at length here, but you get the point.

Some meaningful reforms have been made in recent years, but such was the strength and ferocity of the opposition from the vested interests in the sector that not only was each reform hard fought and won, it left ministers and officials so exhausted and demoralised that it took some time to summon up the energy and enthusiasm to head back into the fray for a while afterwards.

Despite my own legal training and background, I discovered for myself how extremely costly and unsatisfactory the experience can be for a litigant, even when you go in to court admitting that you had got it wrong.

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