Ire­land re­mains an ex­pen­sive place to lit­i­gate and the price of le­gal ser­vices is go­ing up rather than down


The prospect of hav­ing to pay as­tro­nom­i­cal le­gal fees has long been an ob­sta­cle for reg­u­lar peo­ple seek­ing jus­tice in Ire­land’s su­pe­rior courts. Win, and the other side usu­ally has to pay your lawyers’ fees. Lose, and you might have to sell your home or worse. It was re­fresh­ing then to hear the new Chief Jus­tice, Frank Clarke, tackle the is­sue in his first ma­jor speech since as­sum­ing of­fice.

“It has in­creas­ingly be­come the case that many types of lit­i­ga­tion are mov­ing beyond the re­sources of all but a few,” he told a gath­er­ing to mark the start of the new le­gal year, which be­gan this month.

Lawyers are no­to­ri­ously de­fen­sive about the fees they charge, as is the ju­di­ciary about its pay.

So, Mr Jus­tice Clarke’s com­ments were a rare ac­knowl­edge­ment that in our sys­tem of jus­tice, the dice ap­pear to be loaded in favour of the wealthy.

A gen­eral lack of in­for­ma­tion about civil le­gal fees has in­hib­ited de­bate on the is­sue.

The le­gal in­dus­try in Ire­land is big busi­ness, gen­er­at­ing €2.3bn an­nu­ally in rev­enue and sup­port­ing 18,000 jobs, but in­for­ma­tion on pri­vate fees is closely guarded.

Dur­ing the fi­nan­cial cri­sis, a se­ries of cuts were made to le­gal fees. Th­ese largely re­lated to work in the crim­i­nal courts and civil work in­volv­ing State bodies. In con­trast, fees charges by lawyers for pri­vate work in the civil courts have been on the rise and have largely es­caped scru­tiny as they are more dif­fi­cult to quan­tify.

While pub­lic bodies have to dis­close what they pay lawyers, pri­vate en­ti­ties and in­di­vid­ual do not. Law firms and bar­ris­ters are un­der no obli­ga­tion to pub­licly re­veal their earn­ings and there is lit­tle in the way of vol­un­tary dis­clo­sure.

It is no won­der then that an­a­lysts at The Lawyer, a UK-based spe­cial­ist le­gal pub­li­ca­tion, have de­scribe Ire­land as the “least trans­par­ent ju­ris­dic­tion in Europe” from a data col­lec­tion per­spec­tive.

While it is en­cour­ag­ing the Chief Jus­tice put the high cost of ac­cess­ing jus­tice front and cen­tre, ac­tual so­lu­tions may not be so easy to find.

The fledg­ling Le­gal Ser­vices Reg­u­la­tory Author­ity (LSRA) is ex­pected to bring for­ward mea­sures to in­crease com­pe­ti­tion and drive down costs but it is still only in the process of be­ing set up.

One so­lu­tion ad­vo­cated by many lawyers is to pro­vide sig­nif­i­cantly more tax­payer fund­ing to the Le­gal Aid Board. The board ad­min­is­ters a civil le­gal aid scheme un­der which, in the­ory, peo­ple of lim­ited means can get sup­port from the State to vin­di­cate their rights in court. In re­al­ity, this sys­tem is strain­ing un­der the weight of de­mand, with long wait­ing times for con­sul­ta­tions.

Many who could rea­son­ably be classed as poor do not meet the qual­i­fy­ing cri­te­ria and those that do still have to make a con­tri­bu­tion to­wards their le­gal costs. Th­ese rules gave rise to a shock­ing sit­u­a­tion re­cently where a do­mes­tic abuse vic­tim whose hus­band threat­ened to kill her had to rep­re­sent her­self in a fam­ily law case be­cause she could not af­ford the nec­es­sary €130 con­tri­bu­tion.

How­ever, de­spite con­sid­er­able lob­by­ing on is­sue, the Govern­ment has shown lit­tle ap­petite to sig­nif­i­cantly in­crease civil le­gal aid fund­ing.

The ju­di­ciary, for its part, is fo­cussed on re­view­ing pro­ce­dures, many of which are seen as out­dated.

Lawyers aren’t the only ones be­ing paid when some­one goes to court and par­ties in­volved in cases had to spend €44m last year in fees just to lodge civil doc­u­ments, fees the Courts Ser­vice can ill-af­ford to do with­out. But if there are to be changes, they won’t hap­pen any time soon as a re­view of the area, be­ing led by High Court Pres­i­dent Peter Kelly, is set to take three years.

It is also doubt­ful whether it will have any im­pact on fees charged by lawyers.

Dur­ing the bail-out years, the Troika re­peat­edly crit­i­cised the high cost of le­gal ser­vices in Ire­land.

In re­sponse, bar­ris­ters in the crim­i­nal courts had their fees slashed, and bodies like the State Claims Agency sought bet­ter value for money by invit­ing ten­ders for le­gal ser­vices.

How­ever, Ire­land re­mains an ex­pen­sive place to lit­i­gate and the price of le­gal ser­vices is go­ing up rather than down, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Com­pet­i­tive­ness Coun­cil (NCC). Its 2017 Cost of Do­ing Busi­ness re­port found le­gal ser­vice prices were 8.3pc higher in the third quar­ter of 2016 com­pared to the same quar­ter in 2012.

Both the Law So­ci­ety and the Bar of Ire­land, which re­spec­tively rep­re­sent and reg­u­late solic­i­tors and bar­ris­ters, place a health warn­ing on the NCC fig­ures, due to the small sam­ple size used to cal­cu­late them. How­ever, the World Bank is also of the view that Ire­land is a costly place to lit­i­gate, find­ing it to be the sixth most ex­pen­sive place in the OECD to en­force a con­tract.

Law So­ci­ety di­rec­tor gen­eral Ken Mur­phy said the body was press­ing for the re­vi­sion of court rules to min­imise the bur­den on busi­nesses and in­di­vid­u­als. He said in­creased spend­ing on in­fra­struc­ture, such as on­line ser­vices, was also needed to speed up the ad­min­is­tra­tion of jus­tice.

Bar of Ire­land chief ex­ec­u­tive Ciara Mur­phy said the abil­ity of courts to cope with caseloads was closely re­lated to the num­ber of judges avail­able. A 2014 study found Ire­land had the low­est num­ber of judges in Europe per head of pop­u­la­tion.

But what about the le­gal fees charged by prac­ti­tion­ers them­selves?

A se­nior bar­ris­ter pros­e­cut­ing or defending a mur­der case is paid a “brief fee” of €7,127. This is a fee cover­ing prepa­ra­tion of a case and the first day of a trial.

For ev­ery sub­se­quent day the bar­ris­ter is paid a “re­fresher fee” of €1,562. Solic­i­tors re­ceive the same brief fee and a re­fresher fee of €750 per day. Mur­der trial brief fees for ju­nior bar­ris­ters are €4,752.

Lower rates ap­ply in the Cir­cuit Court, but they are still gen­er­ous. Se­nior coun­sel get a brief fee of €1,716 and re­fresher fees of €858 per day. The brief fee for ju­nior coun­sel and solic­i­tors is €1,144 and

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