Luck of the Irish still holding

Though there is an underlying note of caution about the long-term outlook among firms in Northern Ireland, lawyers in the province say they are engaged on the large amount of work generated before the ceasefire breakdown.

However, others believe the ceasefire has not de facto broken in the province. They attributed this to the low police and military presence after the IRA resumed its campaign.

“The whole political thing is up in the air, but there is still a good air about the place. Everything has a buzz. Business is good and steady and increasing,” says Brian Turtle, of Carson & McDowell.

Ken Rutherford of C&H Jefferson estimates that his firm had seen commercial work increase by as much as 25 per cent, much of this in retail business from England. The entry of companies such as British Gas and Sainsburys also helps to inspire confidence in the marketplace, he says.

Brian Duffy, a partner at Elliott Duffy Garrett, is also bullish about commercial activities. He says that business is “very good at the moment”. However, he acknowledges that this is partially because “things in the pipeline are coming through”.

However, Vera Woods of Johns Elliott sounds a note of caution. “Boom time is coming in trickles – but it has not exploded,” she says, and adds that Belfast is “a regional town unlike Dublin and London, and there is a limit to the business that can be generated”.

Predictions are generally good. The Industrial Development Board (IDB) recently announced its most successful year in attracting inward investment. Overseas companies announcing investments included Seagate Technology and Stream International of the US, Montupet of France, Daewoo of South Korea and Japan's Fujitsu.

Northern Ireland's manufacturing output increased by 4.8 per cent up to the end of September 1995, twice the level for the UK as a whole. Korea is the province's largest source of greenfield projects, with a number of companies currently setting up plants at various sites.

But it is not only in the commercial arena that firms are enjoying increased work. Property is booming. On the residential front, house prices are shooting up, with an average increase of 15 per cent in the past year.

Commercial property is also buoyant and firms are involved in a vast array of deals. “We have seen some substantial lettings recently,” says Stratton Mills, of Mills Selig. He attributes this to the arrival of English companies in Belfast. There is also plenty of retail property work, with Mills Selig advising on the purchases of the Clandeboye Shopping Centre in Bangor and the Meadow Lane Shopping centre in Magherafelt.

Judicial review is another growth area. Neil Faris, managing partner of Cleaver Fulton & Rankin, says public law touches on a variety of areas including health and social services and the creation of trusts, and firms are undertaking an increasing level of judicial review work.

Employment-related law has also mushroomed with firms setting up specialist units as companies in Northern Ireland come under the scrutiny of the Fair Employment Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission. The FEC, which monitors the religious make-up of a workforce, has created “a whole new body of case law. It is continually pushing the boundary out,” says Suzanne Bradley, FEC Legal Director.

Gilbert Nesbitt of Wilson Nesbitt says that the FEC is a “developing field” that puts a huge “burden and onus on employers”, including law firms. “It forces you to do what you should be doing anyway. The FEC has a right to inspect your books. You cannot just accept people's CVs. You cannot employ without advertising,” he comments.

The whole monitoring process “provides a paper trail which makes it easier to make a complaint,” Nesbitt says.

Even though many of the cases are small, firms will use Queen's Counsel because many of them are test cases, and favourable decisions are important to the employers. This also means that employment law is becoming a growth area for the Bar, which is in dire need of new areas of work.

The imminent Children's Order, which will place Northern Ireland on the same footing as England and Wales, will come on to the statute books in October. In the meantime, firms are gearing up for what will be one of the biggest changes in years. The Law Society is currently creating a specialist children's panel for accrediting solicitors for this type of work, and it requires them to attend conferences on the new legislation.

Barristers are also boning up on the new legislation. Childcare specialist and barrister Denise Hunt was in London recently to do research on the new legislation. “It is going to mean a sea change for the whole area of childcare law in Northern Ireland,” she says.

Two other areas preoccupying the legal profession currently are the ongoing “hourly rate” debate and the introduction of a conveyancing charter to attempt to keep scale fees alive. The “hourly rate” battle between the taxing master and the Law Society has resulted in a number of court cases against decisions of the taxing master, Christopher Napier.

The society claims that the master does not, in principle, want to increase the hourly rate beyond £40 per hour. Northern Irish solicitors are the lowest paid in the UK, and the rate “bears no relation to the actual costs of running an office,” says Law Society president George Palmer. In a recent case brought before the taxing master, the preliminary judgment rejected the Law Society's position paper and laid down costing for a “notional” solicitor. The judgment states that an average salary for a principal or partner is £15,700 and the only equipment necessary to run an office is a typewriter and a telephone.

Other equipment considered included sophisticated book-keeping machines, word processors and computers, but the taxing master ruled that these are not “in general use”. He was not sure if dictaphones are in general use, but conceded that they might be.

The Law Society is now preparing a High Court appeal and has surveyed the profession to find out the real cost of running an office. So far over 100 firms (one in four) have responded to the survey.

The society is also attempting to set up a quality-based scheme for conveyancing. Palmer says 75 per cent of the profession has joined the scheme, which is currently voluntary but may become compulsory. The thinking behind it is that if solicitors are forced to do the work correctly, they can justifiably charge a scale fee.

The society has employed a monitoring officer who will visit offices in a bid to check files. So far, lending institutions have not supported the idea despite the Law Society saying it will enforce the charter only at institutions which include charter marks on their panels.

A further development in the Belfast marketplace is one firm's move to hire barristers, in a bid to set up an advocacy department. Frank Hanna, of Francis Hanna & Co, has hired two barristers. “I have felt there is a need for practices to move with the times. Large firms are going to have their own advocacy departments,” he says.

The move is not the first time that solicitors and barristers have joined forces recently. The current Northern Ireland football team in the lawyers' version of the World Cup also sees the two sides muck in together to produce a squad which is planning to beat 31 other teams from around the world. Local solicitor and former Linfield and Arsenal player Peter Dornan is leading the squad, the first which plays barristers and solicitors together. Co-operation seems to be a sign of the times in Northern Ireland.