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IMF- the future on legal costs

Ireland is a small place; we should be temperate in our comments because we may offend where no offence is meant and our reduced “degrees of separation” makes the comment fester.

Bearing that in mind, see this newspaper article from the Sunday Business Post of last year. The subject is legal costs. This writer has much to say on the subject, which is not to say the writer is always right.

However, the writer is confident of this; there is a great deal of hoopla dished out on the subject. This post is a small attempt to look at some proposed nostrums and the cited Sunday Business Post article is useful for collecting them together in a “gentleman’s cabinet of curiosities”.

1.       Assess costs by reference to the work actually done. No reasonable person could dispute this. However, as Milton knew,

“They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Lawyers spend an inordinate amount of time standing and waiting, sometimes both. One solution to this aspect of things is that lawyers might charge by reference to time expended. In short, while they are waiting, “doing nothing”, they are entitled to be paid. Taxi drivers operate to some extent on this principle. So, what looked like a reasonable proposition needs refinement by the careful definition of what is meant by “work”. Then we need only make the “assessment” of value. The work of lawyers is not always equal or comparable. That is, some lawyers produce better work than others. (This can sometimes be explained by the role the lawyers are playing; in civil litigation, generally, a plaintiff’s barrister has a greater burden than a defendant’s barrister). One expression of this is to say that, not only do you need to know how to hit the nail on the head, you need to know which nail to hit and when to hit it.

2.       Assess costs by reference to the work appropriately done. Again, no reasonable person could dispute this but who is to decide what is appropriate? Generally speaking, following convention is a reasonable guide to doing appropriate work. (Another solution is that adopted by the Taxing masters of the High Court, who have assigned to barristers the job of defining what is appropriate work to bring an action on for trial. Of course, the Taxing masters are themselves an answer to the question.)

3.       Liberalise conveyancing services. This writer does not know what this phrase means.

4.       Allow clients to switch solicitors. Currently clients may have any number of solicitors they want. They may change their solicitor in any particular matter. What the proposal really means is this; that the client be permitted to change solicitor without reference to the fact that he or she owes the solicitor outstanding fees for work done in the matter. Currently, solicitors rely on a lien on papers to secure them their fees. (The client may withdraw instructions but will not get his or her documents or papers unless the outstanding fee is paid). If solicitors lose that lien they will, inevitably, require payment in advance for their services. That will have social consequences generally considered to be undesirable.

5.       Give the public direct access to barristers. Barristers, generally, do not want this and in due course, neither will a select group of the public – those members of the public who have accessed barristers directly. This last comment will be wrong, in time. That time will arrive when barristers have sufficiently changed to become very like solicitors. Then, they will take and manage client money; they will require larger premises and more staff and they will require to pay more for their professional indemnity insurance.

6.       Permit partnerships for barristers. Why not? Chambers of barristers in the UK very often deliver services as if the chambers were a partnership, but the Law Library in Dublin does the same. These are structures to pool resources and reduce costs. The missing element is the allocation of loss, due to wrongdoing or negligence, on a group rather than a sole practitioner. If barristers formed partnerships it would be for the presumed benefit, to them, of attracting more clients due to the extra security of the collective responsibility, but that is predicated on the supposed inadequacy of current professional indemnity insurance for barristers. If it is inadequate that problem should be addressed immediately.

7.       Increase the numbers of lawyers. Currently, as many as 1,300 solicitors are unemployed. Practising barristers are self employed. They are not so much unemployed as underemployed. Some are much more underemployed than others. Why generate more unemployment?

This subject of legal costs is reminiscent of the “discovery” of “Ida”, a 47 million year old fossil. The press release promised much as Time magazine remarked;

“All of which renders the press release touting a “revolutionary scientific find that will change everything” absolutely true — as long as by “everything,” you mean “whether the branch of the primate family that includes monkeys, apes and humans comes from the suborder strepsirrhinae or the suborder haplorrhinae,” according to the PLoS One paper. And by “change,” you mean “adds information that may or may not help settle the question, but whose implications won’t be known for a long time in any case.”

(See the New Scientist article on the topic HERE, paying close attention to the diagram HERE.)