White calls for change in tone of debate on Legal Reform

Alex White has called for a change in the tone of the current debate on legislation to reform legal services in the State. Speaking in the Dail Alex said:

“The tone of the debate in recent months has been unfortunate. There has been overstatement on the part of the professions as to the implications of some of the Bill’s proposals….but there has also been overreaction to that overstatement… including references to cabals, and allegations of people trying to stay in the nineteenth century. A change of tone in the debate is required in the coming weeks and months when decisions will have to be made regarding the final content of the legislation. We need to lower the temperature of this tense debate….so that we come to the best possible outcome - not for any one interest group, but for the citizens we represent.

“As a practising lawyer and a member of the Bar, I have been disappointed by the slowness of reform and an unwillingness in the past on the part of the professions to embrace or promote change. This has led to a situation whereby people now feel they are victims of change, instead of themselves taking the opportunity, when it is there, to advance proposals for change to the way things are done.

“For example, there is a need to address the question of equity within the legal professions, and in particular the distribution of work at the Bar, to facilitate younger barristers coming into the profession - people who are willing and well able to work. That has not been done but it is an area that should have been addressed and still requires to be addressed. People have been slow to embrace that.

“The independence of the legal profession is critical in any democracy. It is actually a test of the strength of a democracy. All litigants – rich or poor – are entitled to be represented by absolutely fearless advocates, who are never threatened by any attempts to trample their independence. They must not have any concern about repercussions, either from the Government or elsewhere.

“This issue is also related to economic rights. Prospective foreign investors need to understand and appreciate that we have a fully independent legal profession that is beholden to no one, be it the Government or anyone else. It is therefore absolutely vital that that independence should be protected.

“It is not a formalistic matter. I have heard people saying that there is nothing in the Bill that undermines the independence of an individual practitioner. It is a bigger issue than that, however. One must consider carefully the proposed new Authority, for example. The method of appointing the Authority is essential to ensuring the independence of the profession and it is not an incidental question. Nor should the raising of this issue be taken as a criticism of the Minister or the Government. It has to do with the manner in which people perceive that Authority. They need to be sure that it is entirely at arm’s length from the Government, and that it is independent not just in the operation of its functions - which one would assume - but in every way. There should be no sense on the part of any Authority members that they are beholden to the Government, even where is no such intention on the part of the Government.

“The Minister is open to amendments on the means of appointment to the Authority. It is necessary to amend the provision. There are many ideas on how this can be achieved. Other professions, including the medical profession, have a good statutory regime for the appointment of the independent regulator in their cases. These are the parallels we should be looking at”.