Government Action Plan for Jobs 2012.

Statement to the Dail on the Legal Services Regulation Bill 2011

Posted February 3rd, 2012

Thursday, 2nd February 2012

I congratulate the Minister on bringing this Bill before the House. We made a commitment to the people during the general election last year that this would be a reforming Government and that while restoring our country’s fiscal sovereignty would be our prime objective, we would also take the opportunity to reform all aspects of society to better meet the needs and realities of Ireland in the 21st century. Our aim would be to find a new vision for the country and to build a better country in pursuit of that vision. No sector of our economy or society can claim it is incapable of performing better, including this Parliament. We have only just begun our work, but already some important steps have been taken. This Bill is another important step in the process of the reform we hope to bring about for the country.

The Minister has asked for constructive proposals on how the Legal Services Regulation Bill may be strengthened and I hope to offer some in this debate. I have spoken with and corresponded with the Minister on this matter previously and I appreciate the fact he took the time to engage with me in detail on the various issues. We also had an excellent briefing last week on the Bill with the Minister and his officials where we had the opportunity to go through each section of the Bill in detail. Again, I thank the Minister for his time and for answering my questions in detail.

Today, I would like to speak about some particular aspects of the Bill because although we have discussed these issues previously, it is important that as a member of one of the Government parties I come into the House and contribute to the debate. Much of the work of Government Deputy happens in the background, in parliamentary party meetings and in one-on-one meetings with Ministers and their officials. However, it is important to the process that we also come into the House and express our opinions. I feel that too much of the work of an elected representative to this House is confined to that of a constituency representative and that needs to change. It is changing, but slowly. We are elected both to represent our constituents and to attend Parliament and bring our judgment to bear on matters of national importance. That does not mean coming in here and pushing a button once or twice a week, or standing up and speaking to a half-empty Chamber and calling it debate. This is a criticism I level at all of us, myself included. The country wants us to do better. It wants reform in this Chamber and wants us to be better and we cannot let reform of this House slip off the agenda, even for a moment.

As for reform of the legal profession, an issue this Bill attempts to address, it is critical to the functioning of a true and proper democracy that operation and regulation of the legal profession and system is truly independent of the executive and legislative branches of government. To blur that separation of powers even slightly is to strike at the delicate balance underpinning our society.

In a democracy, an independent legal system is essential to protecting and vindicating the legal rights of citizens. Anything that seeks to alter the constitution of that system, even with a view to improving it, must be examined very carefully. Independence is not an absolute term or meaning. It has different connotations. It is varied in its practice and it is relative. As a general principle, we can agree that it is preferable that no body or profession would regulate itself. That is true for the legal profession as it is true for the other professions. However, it is also important to recognise that in a democracy, given the special position of the legal profession, neither can the operation and regulation of that system be vested in the Government alone.

The Legal Services Regulation Bill 2011 establishes a legal services regulatory authority to regulate and control the legal profession, something we all would welcome in this House. However, questions have been raised about its constitution and there is a concern about potential political interference from future administrations. When we address new Bills in this House, we must remember that the ensuing legislation will remain after we are gone. We must always keep in mind those who will follow us into this Chamber and those who may occupy the front benches. Questions have been raised and we should not be afraid of them. We should answer these questions and where they are ridiculous, let us say that they are ridiculous and where they merit consideration, let us consider them. The Government will not have all the answers and we will not get it perfect every time.

I am personally interested in those proposals which have been put forward to parliamentarians that would seek to constitute the regulatory authority in a slightly different manner to that which is proposed in the Bill. I am particularly interested in those elements that seek to give more of a role to Members of the Oireachtas as a pillar separate to that of the Executive. These give us more of a role as legislators and give more weight to what we do in our work in the Government. That is important as part of the reform that we need to seek in this House. We can achieve that without impinging on the independence principle that we are all seeking to promote as we go about reforming the legal profession and as is contained in this Bill.

It is important that the appointment of a new regulatory authority is transparent and is seen to be transparent, uninfluenced by day-to-day political concerns. I wonder if there might be a role for the Commission for Public Service Appointments, or a similar body or committee, to nominate members for the Government to appoint to the regulatory authority. I agree with the Minister that it is also important the authority has a lay majority. However, it might be a good idea for those lay members to be nominated from particular sectors of our society, such as the non-governmental sector or other professional bodies, which will add to the variety of the authority and will increase its expertise. I would also like to see the regulatory authority reporting to the Oireachtas and its committees. If anything, this will strengthen the role of the Oireachtas and its independence from the Executive.

We could decide that Members of the Oireachtas will be responsible for dealing with those matters that may arise in the work of the regulatory authority, such as whether a member should be removed from the authority. That may fall to the Oireachtas or one of its committees to decide, and then only for stated reasons. I raise these two points because it is important in the context of the future Governments and future Members of Parliament who may sit here after us.

We have also discussed the potential costs of the regulatory authority. It is important that it is funded appropriately, so that it can carry out its work. It will have a lot of work to do under this Bill and it is appropriate that it has the right number of staff and all the resources necessary so that it can effectively regulate the legal profession.

The Minister is looking at the ways in which we might cost or provide for the funding of this authority but it is preferable that the authority would be established in such a way that it would not increase costs for the consumer. That is an important principle and I look forward to any proposals that the Minister has on that issue. He has also indicated that amendments may be made to the consent provisions in the Bill, and I look forward to considering them on Committee Stage.

I appreciate that there is a compelling reason for reviewing the current structures of the legal profession. However, given how significant the changes will be – it is a big change to how legal services operate in this country and to how people access those services – it has been suggested that there may be room for further development of the part of the Bill dealing with multi-disciplinary practices in separate legislation. This merits some consideration given the huge amount of work that will be involved in it, and I know the Minister is committed to it.

I am interested to hear more about how it is intended the new disciplinary tribunals are to interact with the new authority. Will they come under it? Will they share membership or other structures? Will they be appointed by the authority or will they be strictly independent of it? If they are independent, how will they be constituted and to whom will they report? We have not had an opportunity to speak about that yet, and I would appreciate clarification on that matter.

I hope that those proposals may be constructive to the work the Minister is trying to do. As a backbench Member of the senior party in the Government, it is important that contribute to this debate and be as constructive as I can. There is a long way to go. It is a large, ambitious Bill and I congratulate the Minister for that. I look forward to participating in further debates as we move to Committee Stage.