Wednesday, 10 February 2021
Appointment of Member of the Legal Services Regulatory Authority: Motion
I warmly welcome the nomination of Ms Deirdre Malone by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission as a member of the Legal Services Regulatory Authority. Quite clearly, Ms Malone is most qualified to fulfil that role.
I agree with Deputy Daly that the Legal Services Regulatory Authority was long overdue in being established. I am delighted to see it functioning. It still has a very demanding agenda of work to be completed. The structure of the authority is a balance between representatives of the legal profession and representatives of consumers of legal services. If one looks at the ten statutory nominating bodies, four are from the legal professions and six are from what might be broadly categorised as representing consumers of legal services. We will have to watch with great care how they function into the future because they have a number of important functions. One is education and training and the requirement for a statutory framework set out in various analyses of the legal profession. Once one embarks on a legal profession, or any profession, one needs to have in-service training of a standard and that needs to be regulated in some form.
The authority has a responsibility under statute to promote competition in the provision of legal services in the State. That is a requirement under the Act. It is an important requirement because there are many citizens who fear seeking to vindicate their rights through legal process because of the prohibitive costs of taking legal actions. For those who are well financed, there is no difficulty in ensuring that their legal rights are well protected but that is not the case for all. It is something of which we must be mindful.
I want to raise an issue that caused me some concern when I heard about it during the week. I refer to a spokesperson from the Law Society referring to the charging of negative interest rates in respect of moneys held in solicitors' clients' accounts. If the banks levy such charges on the solicitors where there is an accumulation of moneys, for example, mortgages - in one bank there is more than €2.5 million and more than €3 million in another - it is being suggested that solicitors will aggregate people's hard-earned money that they got from the sale of houses until the transactions are finalised and might charge negative interest on those accumulated accounts. I do not recall interest being paid in respect of those accounts when positive interest rates were available. Maybe some solicitors' practices paid interest on those accounts but I am not familiar with any that did. It would be unfair for them to do as has been outlined. A more fundamental issue that arises is the objective of promoting competition. How can a spokesperson for the Law Society make a blanket statement to the effect that solicitors will apply this on a uniform basis. Surely that is anti-competitive and I am sure it is not allowed. If individual solicitors want to do that, let them argue the matter with their clients but surely others who do not want to do it should be able to provide that service to their clients as well.
As I say, the regulation of legal professions is important work. We are dependent on legal practitioners in this country and sometimes people are in awe of dealing with the law. We need to have an oversight body that has teeth, power and capacity. The framework is there but we need, as Deputy Daly said, to ensure that the authority has the resources to do its job. We need to provide adequate oversight of their functioning. I hope there will be regular presentations to the Joint Committee on Justice of the ongoing work as this important body beds down and provides services to our citizens.