Bar looks to the 21st century

After several years in the doldrums, the morale of Ireland's 1,100 barristers is finally lifting. For most of the past decade they have been besieged by the twin-pronged assaults of hostile media coverage and internal chaos.

For example, a 1993 internal survey showed that the average yearly income throughout the profession was £17,000. Yet despite this, a near-frenzied Irish media ran an often vitriolic campaign against a profession which it regarded as vastly overpaid.

Initially the Bar did what it always has done when faced with a public onslaught – nothing. It burrowed deeper into the confines of the Law Library while politicians, journalists and members of the public railed against a profession whose members, they claimed, were bleeding the public and taxpayers dry.

As is often the case, there was a small element of truth in these claims. For example, the Irish legal profession did itself no favours during the 1991/2 Beef Tribunal. Instead it appeared to justify allegations of smugness, aloofness and greed.

The very real problem of public perception aside, barristers have been having a tough time. The Law Library, which nestles in a corner of Dublin's Four Courts buildings, was so overcrowded that several barristers complained about possible health hazards.

As one young barrister puts it: "If one person sneezes, 600 of us go down with flu by the end of the week."

Overcrowding is still a major problem. However, the Church Street building which opened two years ago has created offices for 75 barristers, while the new Distillery site premises, which open later this year, will provide offices for 175.

Although this extra room is hailed as progress, it is not without problems of its own. For a start the new premises have already triggered charges of elitism; rents are significantly higher than the subscription to the Law Library, with charges starting at £1,000 a year and increasing to £2,900 after five years.

Because it is far cheaper to retain a seat in the Law Library – average costs range between £6,000 an £8,000 a year – than rent an office in either of the new buildings, there are fears that a two-tier system will be created whereby private offices are seen as a badge of success and a shared space in a communal library will become the lot of the also-rans.

This problem could be exacerbated by the fact that young barristers have traditionally relied on the collegiality of the communal workspace to get a leg up the legal ladder from more experienced members of the profession.

Edel Gormley, the Irish Bar Council's newly appointed press and public relations officer, acknowledges that there may be a problem. "I suppose there is a sense that senior members won't be around the Law Library as much but it is a court-going library," she says.

"Senior barristers are down there every day and will continue to be there. This is the nerve centre of the profession."

She adds: "We accept there is a real fear among younger members that they won't be able to bump into senior barristers in the same way, that the collegiality will disappear, but we don't think that will actually prove to be the case.

"It is going to be a little more difficult to knock on someone's door to ask for help but there are certain challenges at present, there is overcrowding and it has to be tackled."

Bar chair James Nugent maintains that the generous double tax relief system (the Distillery site is in a government-designated tax relief area) which operates in the region will mean that younger barristers can take up rooms in the new premises. In practice, however, few believe this will happen to any significant degree.

The Bar has also risen to meet the challenges of new technology, lack of space and lack of information. The new barristers' premises involves a IR£20m investment by the profession but the Bar Council will own the building outright in 15 years' time.

As well as 175 barristers' offices which are kitted out with the latest IT equipment, it is home to a research centre, library and elaborate database system. It will become the centre for Europe's first international arbitration centre.

More than anything else in the past year, the use of IT has posed the biggest challenge to the traditional structure of the profession. Under Nugent's stewardship much has been achieved in bringing barristers online. For example, the council appointed its first IT officer earlier this year.

Cian Ferriter, the Bar's IT special projects manager, certainly has his work cut out. Although many barristers have their own laptop computers there is a long way to go.

At present the Law Library has only 10 communal computers for its 1,000-plus members. New databases are being compiled and law reports made available on CD-ROM; in this month's edition of the Bar Review the Irish Attorney General, Dermot Gleeson, writes about the advantages of having all the statutes, statutory instruments and indexes available in CD-ROM format.

There are plans to link, using a bleeper system, barristers based in different work areas and those with offices at home. Law students will receive a comprehensive grounding in the use of IT and an electronic information bulletin board is planned.

According to Gormley, the wig and gown and the laptop are no longer considered incompatible. "I think the profession has recently started to become much more alert and in tune to what the public wants from it and how the public perceives it," she says. "It is no longer archaic. Barristers have embraced the IT revolution. We have now got more space, more facilities and better conditions for our members."

Long term, however, she acknowledges that having a system of offices for sole practitioners alongside a communal law library may not be practical. Despite past hostility to setting up a chambers system similar to that which operates in the UK, in the long term having two separate bases is likely to polarise the profession.

Gormley says that this is something the profession will have to look at again but, for now, it is looking forward to the opening of the new premises and the development of a virtual Law Library.

"We are quite a way down the road to a virtual Law Library now," she says.

"Access to information for all our members is now far easier regardless of where they operate from.

"We are at an interesting point in terms of our physical development, our new technology and the other developments in the administration of justice. Developments in Ireland's Department of Justice have helped ease the bottleneck of cases snaking their way through the courts. This month alone, five new District Courts and three new Circuit Courts were opened."

She adds that delays of two years have been reduced drastically; cases can now reach the courts in as little as six weeks. News that an independent statutory agency, headed by a chief executive, is to take over the administration of justice and the running of the courts has been well received by the profession.

"These are dramatic reductions in delays and dramatic improvements in the administration of justice by any standards," Gormley says. "And it's certainly good news for barristers. Members of the profession agree that fewer delays mean more business."

She adds: "Because cases are being processed at a vastly increased rate, fees are coming in quicker and the boom which the Irish economy has been enjoying has also made its way down to the Law Library, particularly its commercial sector."

The rising tide may not have lifted all boats in the Law Library but few would deny that the creaking old battleship has been modernised, and is now in a better position to cruise towards the millennium.

what a difference a year makes

The Law Society of Ireland has had a busy year. It has recently implemented 106 recommendations from a review of its activities last year and is now mulling over that perennial question, the future of the legal profession.

Last year saw the first four solicitor judges appointed which, says Secretary General Ken Murphy, was good for the profession's self-esteem. A working party is looking at the issue of whether solicitors are eligible for appointment in the High/Supreme Court.

The issue of personal injury damages is also on the society's agenda. A working party is looking at whether a personal injuries tribunal should be established for hearing and determining the level of quantum in such cases. But the society is not in favour of a tribunal, which would be set up to take the issue out of the courts with the agreement of both parties.

"There is nothing so far in the discussions that suggests that clients best interests would be looked after," Murphy says. "It's a non-runner despite political pressure in favour of it," he adds.

A significant event for the legal profession was the advent of divorce on 27 February. Few cases have been processed so far, although figures suggest there are 80,000 people who describe themselves as "separated". "A great many of these will have formed second relationships and the expectation is that this will result in considerable volumes of work for lawyers," says Murphy. But he points out that such divorces will be "slow and complicated" since this is the type of divorce which the constitutional amendment opted for.

One further issue for the society is the legal education policy review. A committee is looking at the issue of "lengthening and deepening education", says Murphy. Currently trainee lawyers undergo four-and-a-half months of professional training followed by 18 months of office training, then a further two-month course.

This could be extend to an academic year which would allow everything to be taught as well as adding new subjects such as business and management. A proposal for a new law school is also being considered.