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Last year ‘far from normal’ for legal sector

01 Jul 2021 / regulation Print

Last year ‘in no way normal’ for legal sector

The number of solicitors holding practising certificates fell last year for the first time since 2009, according to the annual report of the Legal Services Regulatory Authority (LSRA).

The regulatory body’s report, published today (30 June), says that the impact of Brexit on admissions to the Roll of Solicitors appears to have peaked, and it expects numbers to stabilise from now on.

The report is the second that the authority has submitted to the Minister for Justice under section 33(1) of the Legal Services Regulation Act 2015.

A total of 906 solicitors were admitted in 2020 – a 62% decrease on 2019. There was a significant drop in the number of solicitors qualified in England and Wales entering the roll – down to 443 compared with 1,838 in 2019.

Admissions policy changes

Last year was the first since 2016 – the year Britain voted to leave the EU – in which annual admissions to the roll fell below 1,000.

In November last year, the Law Society made a significant change to its admissions policy, meaning that solicitors qualified in England and Wales are no longer entitled to be issued with practising certificates unless they can demonstrate that they practise, or intend to practise, in Ireland from a physical establishment in this jurisdiction.

New regulations in January 2021 also enabled the Law Society to reinstate direct admission of qualified solicitors from England and Wales to the Irish roll, subject to reciprocity.

Not a normal year

The LRSA says 2020 “can in no way be considered a normal year” for the legal profession, due to the combined impact of COVID-19 and Brexit.

It notes that, while there are numerous negative economic aspects to Brexit for Ireland, there may also be fresh opportunities for growth in the commercial legal services sector in the years ahead.

The LSRA says that the pandemic had a “significant negative impact” on demand for the services of solicitors and barristers, as well as the income of many professionals.

It notes, however, a Law Society assessment that employment had held up during the year, and that almost all solicitors had been kept on by their employers.

The LSRA adds that the Legal Aid Board continued to find recruitment of solicitors challenging throughout 2020, with limited numbers applying for solicitor competitions compared with other public-sector bodies.

The report shows that almost one in four solicitors holding practising certificates in 2020 worked for 20 large law firms. There was also a big increase in the number of solicitors working in-house in the public and private sectors — from 2,496 in 2019 to 3,224 last year.

The pandemic-led shift to remote working and online training also brought what the authority expects to be “lasting changes” in terms of working practices, flexibility and access.

“The restrictions caused by the pandemic also dramatically increased the pace of introduction of technology-led innovations and efficiencies in the legal services arena, placing a renewed focus on the possibilities for technologically driven provision of legal services,” the report says.

Fewer barristers admitted

The report shows that 167 barristers were called to the Bar of Ireland by the Chief Justice in 2020 — down 14% from 190 in 2019.

Of those admitted in 2020, a total of 116 were graduates of the King’s Inns Barrister-at-Law degree course. The total also includes 47 barristers who had obtained their professional qualifications in England and Wales, or Northern Ireland.

The total number of barristers on the Roll of Practising Barristers stood at 2,823 at the end of 2020, an increase of 88 on the total at the end of 2019.

The LSRA report notes the Bar of Ireland's assessment that demand for barristers’ services “ebbed and flowed” since March 2020, in line with the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on the courts.

‘Limitations’ on costs data

On legal costs, the LSRA says that there are limitations on the availability of statistical data that limit its ability to draw conclusions in areas that require its assessment under legislation.

Section 33(1)(c) of the act requires the LSRA to assess whether the number of people admitted to practise as barristers and solicitors in each year is “consistent with the public interest in ensuring the availability of such services at a reasonable cost”.

Its report notes, however, that the National Competitiveness Council’s annual report for 2020 identified legal costs among a number of long-standing structural issues within the Irish economy that may have been placing higher costs on Irish businesses and consumers, relative to other European countries.

Recommendations on training

The report predicts significant changes in legal education over the coming years, after an LSRA report to the Minister for Justice in September last year made 12 recommendations for the reform of legal education, and training for solicitors and barristers.

The two key recommendations were:

  • A clear definition of the competence and standards required to practise as a solicitor or barrister should be developed, and
  • The establishment of a new and independent Legal Practitioner Education and Training Committee (the LPET Committee).

The regulator’s annual report welcomes the publication of the ‘Statement of the Required Competencies of a Barrister’, by the King’s Inns, in November 2020.

The Law Society has told the LSRA that it is putting in place a competency framework for solicitors. In addition, the first solicitor trainees began their studies on the Law Society’s flexible PPC – the PPC Hybrid – which includes online lectures and (before COVID-19) weekend on-site tuition.

Gazette Desk
Gazette.ie is the daily legal news site of the Law Society of Ireland