Editor's Viewpoint: Make legal service more accountable
The Office of Fair Trading has welcomed the voluntary steps taken by the Bar Council of Northern Ireland to encourage price competition among barristers and to improve the choice for consumers.
This will also be welcomed by clients, but they will share the concern of the OFT that the regulation of legal services in Northern Ireland appears to lack the independence and the accountability of those in England and Wales.
There are approximately 600 barristers in private practice in Northern Ireland. Some earn huge fees, the details of which were made public recently, but it would be wrong to assume that all barristers are very highly paid. Many are also affected by the downturn.
The Bar Council, following an intervention by the OFT, has made it clear that barristers in Northern Ireland can compete freely on the fees charged to their clients in criminal or civil cases. Furthermore, the Bar Council has agreed to make it easier for outside barristers to practise here by publicising an abridged and flexible procedure to obtain a temporary practising certificate.
This will further increase the range of choice for clients, and it will also impose its own discipline on barristers who will be required to compete with a wider range of colleagues.
The legal profession requires fair payment for the service it provides, but those who use it are also entitled to value for money.
However the OFT also points out that an independent regulatory body is required to oversee the Northern Ireland legal market.
This has not yet happened, and it should be a matter of concern for the Bar Council and its members who have no excuse for not falling into line with their colleagues in England and Wales, where there is now a proper system of independence and accountability.