Wednesday, 10 February 2021
Appointment of Member of the Legal Services Regulatory Authority: Motion
I welcome the appointment of Ms Deirdre Malone by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. Her experience with the Free Legal Advice Centres will be valuable in the context of her work with the Legal Services Regulatory Authority.
The Legal Services Regulatory Authority was established in 2016 and plays an important role in the reform of our legal services. Indeed, one of the areas identified by the troika as urgently in need of fundamental reform was that of legal services, as has been raised already in this debate in the context of the fact that it is prohibitively expensive for people to take action when it needs to be taken. In 2019, the body became responsible for progressing allegations of wrongdoing against solicitors and barristers. Since taking over the complaints procedure, it has detailed in its biannual report the number of complaints it has received and the stages of resolution. In total, 1,241 complaints had been made and 55.4% related to misconduct. Three hundred and fifty-six cases have been closed and 234 deemed inadmissible, with 35 withdrawn. Eighty-six were resolved prior to the informal resolution process, which has already been said. No cases have completed the informal resolution process to date and, therefore, none has moved to the determination process. I suspect that is the area where most resources will be required to get to resolution. We must keep under review what resources are available to the board and whether they are sufficient to do that work on an ongoing basis.
Informal resolutions, with or without the assistance of the Legal Services Regulatory Authority, are the preferred option and it can take some time to mediate these disputes. As has been pointed out, the Legal Services Regulatory Authority reports both parties receiving correspondence. Once they receive that correspondence, it often prompts them to find a resolution. We must be sure that such resolutions are fair. People can often feel that there is inequality in a process. I would like to see some further work done on that in terms of surveying what the experience has been. It is too early to judge the process given that it was only put in place relatively recently. It will also take some time to deal with the volume of complaints. I presume that some of those complaints would have been historical in nature.
Shortly after it was established in 2016, the authority began to review barrister and solicitor education. It found evidence of a lack of clarity in respect of the competencies required for a solicitor or a barrister, indirect barriers to entry to the professions, unnecessary duplication in learning and assessment, a mismatch in terms of the skills taught with the needs of users of legal services, gaps in quality and a lack of independent oversight in the education system. It is useful that this has been documented because it obviously sets out an agenda.
The traditions relating to the education of barristers and solicitors have remained largely unchanged since the 19th century, with the Law Society and the Honourable Society of King's Inns holding a monopoly over the professional training.
The attitude towards professional and educational institutions has changed since both bodies were established. Institutions have become more transparent, accessible and diverse and less tolerant of privilege. The legal sector has largely been resistant to change, with a tendency to cling to tradition.
Last year, the Legal Services Regulatory Authority proposed a new statutory framework for the education of barristers and solicitors under which a new independent body, the legal practitioners education and training committee, would be responsible for setting and maintaining new standards. The Law Society and King's Inns would be required to meet those new standards. Crucially, this proposal would allow other educational institutions to provide professional training for barristers and solicitors.