However, complaints received by the Law Society prior to the October date will continue to be dealt with by the Society.
The previous system of regulation, whereby complaints were dealt with by the Law Society, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal and the Barristers Professional Conduct Tribunal, will be phased out.
Spike in complaints
Commenting in the Irish Independent, Brian Doherty (CEO of the LSRA, pictured) says that he expects there to be a spike in complaints against lawyers following the introduction of the new disciplinary regime.
Mr Doherty previously held senior positions with the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. “From my own experience with the Police Ombudsman and the Garda Ombudsman, there is usually a spike in complaints whenever a new agency comes in because there is the resultant media coverage,” he said.
The LSRA has carried out an analysis of the expected level of complaints. Mr Doherty said that he was confident the organisation could “deal with whatever comes in under the new process”.
New complaints system
The new complaints and disciplinary system is quite similar to the existing one. The most significant differences are the new institutions – with complaints about solicitors being made to the LSRA rather than the Law Society, and with disciplinary cases being heard by the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal rather than the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.
The existing three-tier structure of a complaints committee, a disciplinary tribunal, with the High Court at the apex of the system, in essence remains the same. An administrative filtering and resolution process is also provided for.
Three-year time limit
A client may make a complaint to the authority about legal services of inadequate standard or excessive costs. There is a three-year time limit for making such complaints, which compares with the existing five-year time limit. Any person may make a complaint to the authority about misconduct. There is no time limit for conduct complaints.
Complaints may be made only to the authority, and the Law Society must refer any complaints it receives to the authority. Where the Law Society, in the exercise of its statutory functions, forms the opinion that an act or omission of a solicitor constitutes misconduct, it must notify the authority, unless the matter constitutes a breach of the Solicitors Accounts Regulations or should be investigated in connection with such a breach.
There will be an expanded definition of misconduct. The Legal Services Regulatory Authority will deal with complaints and will have limited powers of sanction. Informal resolution of complaints about inadequate services and excessive costs will be encouraged.
The authority will have a Complaints Committee, which will have the power to make referrals to the new Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal. The tribunal will refer serious cases to the High Court for decision on sanction.
Complaints procedures are to be as informal as is consistent with the principles of fair procedures, and so that undue expense is not incurred.
The authority must conduct a preliminary review of a complaint to determine whether or not it is admissible. It must first notify the legal practitioner of the complaint and request his or her observations.
The act allows the rejection of complaints that are frivolous or vexatious, without substance or foundation, out of time, or relate to a matter already decided under the act, the Solicitors Acts, or in civil or criminal proceedings.
One effect of this is that complaints that have already been dealt with by the Law Society cannot be reopened.
The authority is required to facilitate informal resolution of complaints relating to inadequate service or excessive costs, where the client and the legal practitioner agree.
Where the parties do not accept the authority’s invitation of informal resolution or the attempt to resolve is unsuccessful, a written procedure is commenced.
In appropriate cases, the authority may issue directions. The range of directions available at this stage is similar to those available to the Law Society’s Complaints and Client Relations Committee.
The Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal will have a lay majority, and a minimum of six of its up to 33 members will be nominated by the Law Society. The chairperson of the tribunal is appointed by the President of the High Court and may be either a layperson or a legal practitioner. The tribunal will act in divisions, chaired by a layperson.
Applications to the tribunal may be made by the Complaints Committee or by the Law Society.
This means that the current right of members of the public to make direct disciplinary applications will cease.
It is expressly provided that complaints about inadequate services and excessive fees received by the Law Society before the commencement of the new system will continue to be dealt with to conclusion under the existing system.
With conduct complaints, if the act or omission giving rise to the complaint occurred before the commencement of the new system, but the complaint is received after commencement, while it will be the authority that deals with the complaint, it will do so under the current definition of misconduct (rather than the new expanded definition contained in the act).
The LSRA has been in existence since October 2016 and is currently engaged in a large recruitment programme. It is expected to move to permanent premises in Stoneybatter, Dublin, in the coming months.
From 7 October 2019, complaints about a solicitor, or enquiries about making a complaint, should be referred to the LSRA at: LSRA, PO Box 12906, Dublin 2; email email@example.com; or visit: www.lsra.ie.
For complaints made to the Law Society prior to 7 October 2019, the contact details remain the same:Complaints and Client Relations Section, Law Society of Ireland, George’s Court, George’s Lane, Dublin 7; tel: 01 879 8700; fax: 01 879 8785; or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“One of the key messages is for both practitioners and complainants to engage in the mediation and informal resolution process, because we think it can produce some good outcomes for both parties,” Mr Doherty concluded.
October will also see the introduction of new legal costs transparency rules, while a new office will open to adjudicate on disputes over legal costs.