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Public wants and expects more from State – AG
Attorney General Rossa Fanning Pic: Cian Redmond

20 May 2024 / law society Print

Public wants and expects more from State – AG

Speaking at the Law Society’s 2024 annual dinner (17 May), Attorney General Rossa Fanning said that there was a tendency to only appreciate the significance of the rule of law when it had gone.

Various human-rights atrocities tended to have one thing in common, he said: the absence of a functioning legal system and the disintegration of the rule of law.

Fanning said that he had daily contact with hundreds of solicitors who worked in the three legal offices that he oversaw.

Contemporary public commentary was often couched in terms hostile to the professions in general, and to the legal profession in particular, he said.

Vital role

While no profession should be above criticism, the vital role of lawyers in modern society should be robustly articulated, so that the narrative of an overwhelmingly positive contribution was more widely understood, he said.

“Leaders of the legal profession must be able to explain, with confidence and clarity of purpose, the indispensable function that solicitors play in the Ireland of today,” the AG said.

People might sometimes resent that Ireland was a society governed by laws, but it was an awful lot better than the alternative, he said.

Law by its very nature was often the source of controversy, and there was nothing wrong with that, the AG added.

“Every advanced society faces difficult questions about whether it is striking the right balance with its laws, whether they are too many or too few, whether they are too strict or too lenient,” he continued.

Healthy public debate

That these issues were the subject of an ongoing public debate was the healthy mark of an evolved democracy, the AG stated.

The law is not a monolithic set of rules, but must be dynamic, and quickly adapt and respond to changes in human behaviour, and changes in commercial life.

“As society becomes more sophisticated, legal regulation must necessarily become more complicated,” he added, and that was due to our membership of a rules-based order in the EU.

The responsibilities of the modern state have become much larger compared with decades ago, with many statutory bodies performing functions autonomously from central government.

“The State quite simply does more than it used to do. The public wants and expects more from the State now than in years gone by,” Mr Fanning continued.

When it acts, the State must have lawful authority for its actions and, therefore, the matrix of statutory powers must grow.

Society was also less tolerant of the idea that a problem should be let go without a legal remedy, he noted.

Solicitors played an essential role in the protection and vindication of the legal rights of Irish citizens, the AG said.

Serving needs of multi-nationals

Rossa Fanning said that Ireland’s enormous multi-national sector could not trade in Ireland without a legal profession capable of serving its needs.

Economic demand over the last quarter of a century had created a demand for specialised legal services that had greatly improved the range and volume of opportunities available to solicitors.

The exponential growth in size and sophistication of Irish law firms, together with the arrival of global businesses opening new offices here, said something very positive about the position of legal services in this jurisdiction, he added.

Almost all substantial businesses here have significant in-house legal functions, and a quarter of the profession works in-house.

There were 11,871 practising certificates in place at year-end 2023, with 772 new solicitors joining the profession last year – a 50% increase on the previous year, when a total of 548 trainees were admitted, he said.

This was the highest annual figure since 2011, and these positive trends could encourage significant optimism for the future of the profession, the attorney general said.

To be a solicitor was regarded as a significant position in Irish society and was a hallmark of academic achievement, strategic judgment, and personal integrity.

It was also a position of prestige and respect within the community, but there was no room for complacency in any profession, the AG commented.

Any lack of integrity in the profession was very serious for society, since the law must command the respect the public while simultaneously modernising to reflect societal change.

“The profession must continue to produce law firms that serve the needs of individuals, and the needs of corporations,” he concluded.

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