Report on the Legal Complaints and Regulation Bill
Session: Session currently unavailable
Date: 09 December 2015
Reference: NIA 287/11-16
Mandate Number: 2011-2016
The Legal Complaints and Regulation Bill will bring about a significant and long-awaited reform of the existing system for handling complaints against solicitors and barristers in Northern Ireland. This proposed change will not result in the type of ‘root and branch’ reform, leading to independent structures for legal complaints and regulation, which has been legislated for in England and Wales and in Scotland and which is planned in the Republic of Ireland. However, the Bill will provide for a ‘copper-bottoming’ of the present complaints-handling arrangements in Northern Ireland with, amongst other things, a shift to layperson-led control with enhanced powers and oversight, including through the establishment of the post of Legal Services Oversight Commissioner.
The policy objectives of the Bill have been informed by the work of the Legal Services Review Group, chaired by Professor Sir George Bain, which reported its recommendations to the then Minister of Finance and Personnel in November 2006. The Review Group noted that the legal profession in Northern Ireland is largely self-regulating, with the Bar of Northern Ireland not being subject to any statutory oversight and only the Law Society of Northern Ireland, as the regulatory body for solicitors, being subject to the limited oversight powers of the Lay Observer for Northern Ireland in relation to complaints. The Review Group, and subsequently the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP), concluded that a different approach to that taken in Great Britain is required in Northern Ireland, one which is measured and proportionate to the particular circumstances pertaining here.
This report sets out the Committee for Finance and Personnel’s consideration of the Bill, which comprises 55 clauses and 5 schedules. During its pre-introductory and Committee Stage scrutiny of the Bill, the Committee received written and oral evidence from a range of stakeholders, including DFP, the bodies representing the legal profession, expert witnesses, consumer groups and other interested parties. In addition, comparative research and evidence was collected on the arrangements for handling legal complaints and regulation in other jurisdictions. As well as scrutinising the policy intention of the reforms, members examined the Bill in terms of the operational aspects of the provisions and the technical drafting.
The detailed scrutiny by the Committee has resulted in a range of issues being raised with the Department and upon which some helpful clarification, explanation and assurances have been received. Moreover, the Committee has identified a number of issues requiring to be addressed by way of amendments at Consideration Stage in order to provide additional assurances and to strengthen and improve the legislative provisions. Foremost amongst these issues is the need to provide visibility as to the true level of legal complaints in Northern Ireland. The Department has helpfully agreed to table amendments to address this and other concerns raised by the Committee. Also of significance is the need to provide for an independent review to gauge delivery of the projected benefits of the proposed new system, given that successful implementation will help prove the case made against ‘root and branch’ reform in Northern Ireland. The Committee will table an amendment to provide for this further assurance measure.
Finally, the Committee wishes to record its appreciation for the stakeholder contributions, including the constructive engagement with the Department, which have helped to shape the conclusions and recommendations contained in this report. It is intended that this work will inform the contributions of Assembly Members to the Consideration Stage debate.