At the Annual Dinner of the Law Society on Friday 10 July, the President of the Law Society Kevin O’Higgins addressed the Taoiseach Enda Kenny and the Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald among others with the following speech.
Speech of President Kevin O’Higgins - Law Society Annual Dinner, 10 July 2015
“Taoiseach, Chief Justice, Presidents of the Court of Appeal, the High Court, the Circuit Court and the District Court, Other Members of the Judiciary, Minister for Justice and Equality, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Commissioner of an Garda Siochana, Director of Public Prosecutions, Law Society Presidents from Northern Ireland Arleen Elliott, from Scotland Christine McClintock and Jonathan Smithers England and Wales (the last mentioned having taken office only yesterday), former Attorney General of England and Wales Dominic Grieve MP, Members of the Oireachtas, colleagues, friends, Ladies and Gentlemen, on behalf of the Council of the Law Society you are all very welcome to Blackhall Place on this the occasion of our Annual Dinner.
I would like to extend a very special welcome to my friend, An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. I’ve known Enda for almost 20 years. We are both men of Mayo (though I must admit I only get to claim that esteemed title part-time), we bleed green and red, and we have climbed Croagh Patrick more times than we care to admit. It is a great honour and privilege for me and for the Society that you are here tonight, Taoiseach. Thank you. As Greece and the whole of Europe is aware, you have a busy weekend ahead of you!
I’m delighted also that my wife Gaye could join me here tonight, together with my two sons Hugo and Kevin, and just for the historians present here today marks the 88th anniversary of the assassination of my granduncle Kevin O’Higgins, this State’s first Minister for Justice.
Being President of the Law Society has been a wonderful experience for me and I can genuinely say that each day is even better than the one which preceded it. I can honestly say that being present here with so many friends, family and so many people whom I greatly admire, makes today especially a personal and career highlight.
This is the most important social event in the Law Society’s year. This is our opportunity not just to thank you all for your friendship. But it is also an opportunity to take stock of a few of the issues that have dominated in the preceding 12 months.
I want to mention a few major landmarks reached this year in our swiftly changing profession. Having checked carefully we are satisfied that the solicitors’ profession in Ireland has become the first legal profession in the world in which the majority of practitioners are women. At the close of 2014, there were exactly 4,623 female solicitors with practising certificates and exactly 4,609 male practising solicitors. So just 92 years after it was first legally permitted for a woman to become a member of the profession, women solicitors now outnumber their male counterparts.
The feminisation of the legal profession is a global phenomenon – but the solicitors’ profession in Ireland is leading it. Another global phenomenon is the trend for lawyers to work ‘in-house’ in corporations and in the public service. That category now represents 19% of the practising profession – having grown in the last eight years by a remarkable 79%.
And a final important statistical landmark was reached this year as the number on the Roll of Solicitors quietly ticked past 15,000.
We are an expanding profession, we are diverse, we are modern, we embrace change and we aim to be in every way on a par with the very best in the world.
Technology is one of the keys not just to the future but to the present. On every front we continue to embrace advances in technology in our daily work, and in delivering the services required by our clients. One of these advances is our work on eConveyancing; endorsed and supported by the Government in its Construction 2020roadmap. We have been active supporters of this project since it was first proposed by the Law Reform Commission in 2006. Working with our Canadian partners, Teranet, we are developing a dynamic, secure and streamlined conveyancing model that supports the eAgenda, improves Ireland’s competitiveness and facilitates the public in the efficient transfer of property. The continued support of the State and its agencies is essential in bringing about this transformation with 2017 as the target year for our new eConveyancing system to ‘go live’ in Ireland.
Last month lawyers all around the world celebrated the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta on 15 June 1215. The document was sealed at Runnymede outside London – but it is a document that truly belongs to the world.
Ideas that are central to liberal democracies today – the rule of law, individual liberties, due process, the separation of powers and taxation only by popular consent – kernels of all of these can be found in the Magna Carta. Unfortunately, the majority of people around the world today do not live in countries that adhere to the principles that were incipient in the Magna Carta.
We should reflect on this with the approach of the two-year anniversary of the detention of Irish teenager, Ibrahim Halawa, in Egypt. Expert legal opinions argue persuasively that the detention and proposed trial of Ibrahim Halawa is a flagrant breach of international human rights law. We urge the Irish Government to continue to apply all possible pressure to bring about the very early and fair trial to which, as a minimum, Ibrahim Halawa is entitled.
Court of Appeal
Within the last twelve months we have seen by far the greatest number of judicial appointments in any such period in the history of the State – driven primarily by the very welcome introduction of the Court of Appeal – a court that has very definitely hit the ground running. Very unwelcome, however, has been the tiny number of judicial appointments from the solicitors’ branch of the profession.
When reviewing the statistics a year ago my predecessor John P Shaw noted that 80% of the legal profession, being solicitors, has produced just 8% of the senior judicial appointments over the previous 12 years, and solicitors were eligible for all such appointments. Regrettably that situation has actually deteriorated over the last year.
In reality, this is not simply a matter of ‘division of spoils’ between two branches of the legal profession. There is a genuine public interest at stake here. As has been recognised by successive governments since a 1999 report on the subject, the public would benefit from appointments to senior judicial office from a wider pool of talent with a more diverse set of relevant legal skills.
Why is it not happening? Is Ireland’s system of selection of judges of every court, outside of the District Court, prejudiced against solicitor candidates and in favour of those from the Bar? All the evidence suggests to the Law Society that it is. And that has to change.
Cuts to justice system
As we consider that this evening will be the last Annual Dinner before the next General Election, I do wish to raise what I hope will be one source of debate in that election campaign – the funding of the justice system. We know since the economic crisis that we have all had to tighten our collective belt. However, where there has been an active and healthy debate relating to cuts to, for example, the budgets for health and education, there has been near radio silence related to the devastating cuts to the funding of the courts.
Since 2008 seventy-seven court venues have closed across the country. We were pleased this year when, frankly, sense prevailed and the Courts Service cancelled the proposed closure of court venues in Swords, Dun Laoghaire, Balbriggan and Tallaght. The Society is opposed to any further court venue closures anywhere in the country.
Understaffing is also a major problem and this has led to delays, and a major degradation of service. Last year Tipperary became the only county in Ireland without a probate officer when that office was closed for staffing reasons. I understand from a recent visit to the North-West that even getting a phone call answered at some courthouses can be a real challenge.
The Law Society has long been concerned about the unacceptable delays in the taxation of costs system. Given that the Law Society is a party to a matter before the courts related to taxation of costs, I will say no more on this particular issue. However, speaking generally, we must be clear – an effective justice system is of vital importance for a functioning democracy and for the cohesion of the State. The State must be prepared to fund it adequately.
I would now like briefly to turn our attention to the Legal Services Regulation Bill. This is the fourth time the Bill has been mentioned at an Annual Dinner of the Law Society. The Bill was first published in October 2011. However it appears that the legislative process is at last coming to an end and we have been told it will be enacted later this year. We welcome this fact.
This is a large and complex piece of legislation that aims to make many important changes. In fact it contains little with which the Society would disagree. We have engaged in great detail and very constructively with successive Ministers for Justice and their Department on this Bill. A great many amendments to improve this Bill, in the public interest, have been made by the Oireachtas proposed by both former Minister Shatter and, over the last year or so, by Minister Fitzgerald. I pay tribute to them both. The Society will continue to work closely with her and her officials to further improve this Bill.
I will end my comments on a further positive note by warmly welcoming the historic passing of the Marriage Referendum in May. The Law Society’s Council decided that this was an issue of equality and human rights on which the Society should take a public position recommending a ‘yes’ vote.
I know many in the Council were proud to have the Society take a stand for equality and, hopefully, to make a difference on such an important issue. People become solicitors because they care about fairness, justice, equality and human rights. And it is always the role of the Society to bring these issues to the fore in public discourse. Our members want the solicitors’ profession to take an active role to promote what is right for the benefit of all – for solicitors and the public, alike. What is good for the public we serve is good also for the profession.
To the extent that that proposition was ever questioned in the Law Society, I can assure you, Taoiseach, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, it is not questioned now.
Thank you very much.