February 10, 2012
EVERY GOVERNMENT department should have an arbitration officer to limit legal costs because the State has a reputation of “rarely settling cases until reaching the steps of the court”, the Dáil has heard.
The State is “the greatest contractor of legal services” in the Republic, paying “at least half the costs of all prosecutions”, said Fine Gael’s Noel Harrington.
“Far too often when costs are settled and agreed, the scrutiny is less than it should be,” said the Cork South West TD .
He was speaking during the debate on the Legal Services Regulation Bill, which aims to radically reform the operations of the legal profession and to cut legal costs.
Criticising the State’s reputation for delaying the settlement of cases either at the steps of the courthouse or after the hearing had started, Mr Harrington called for the Government to examine greater use of mediation and arbitration facilities. Every Minister should appoint a “delegated person in the department to be a mediation or arbitration officer to examine the possibility of avoiding these legal costs”.
He highlighted one reported case where a family sought €25,000 damages for the death of their son while on active service for the State. The legal costs of “trying the case will be much greater than the amount claimed” and there might be a role for arbitration in this.
He hit out at the huge fees charged by some senior counsel. In some cases, fees of €20,000 for five hours in court were charged.
Mr Harrington accepted there might be a “great deal of work involved”, but the figure was twice what a person received annually in the State pension.
“We need greater scrutiny and competition when it comes to legal costs.”
Earlier Labour backbencher Joanna Tuffy (Dublin Mid West) said there was “too much pomp and ceremony in how barristers operate”.
Ms Tuffy, a solicitor, said “the clothes, dinners and so on make the Bar off-putting to wider participation by people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, including solicitors”.
She criticised Minister for Justice Alan Shatter for failing to consult the Law Society and the Bar Council before publishing the Bill.
She said the Competition Authority had recommended a regulatory model with oversight by the professional bodies, but the Minister’s proposals “will make for a significant change”.
Debate on the legislation continues in the Dáil next week.
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