2015 has proved an extremely significant year in public and regulatory law, which included a flurry of statutory inquiries and investigations, including the high-profile parliamentary Banking Inquiry, and the long-awaited introduction of regulation and reform in the areas of lobbying and legal services-provision.
The Joint Committee of Inquiry into the Banking Crisis (the "Banking Inquiry") was established in November 2014 as the first inquiry of its kind under new parliamentary inquiry legislation. It took centre stage in 2015, broadcasting its proceedings, and gaining extensive media coverage in Ireland and abroad.
With an extensive remit to investigate the political, economic and social factors contributing to Ireland's systemic banking crisis, the Committee heard testimony from a vast array of witnesses. These included politicians, bankers, journalists, experts, auditors and regulators, in a long series of public hearings.
We advised witnesses appearing before the Committee.
Following legal review and consultation with affected parties, the Committee's report is due to be published in January 2016. With a "clear and explicit" list of findings and recommendations promised, we can expect significant pressure on the Government to implement the report's eagerly-awaited recommendations.
Lobbying communications with public officials became subject to regulation in September 2015, with the introduction of the Regulation of Lobbying Act (the "Act"). This is part of a suite of recent transparency reforms, which includes revamped Freedom of Information ("FOI") legislation.
Under the Act, persons engaging in "lobbying activities" must register with the Standards in Public Office Commission ("SIPO"). Returns must be made three times a year, listing substantial information on that activity, including the names of the officials to whom communications have been made.
The Act has led to the creation of a web-based register. The identities of persons communicating with Government ministers, senior politicians or members of local authorities on matters of public policy are made available online to the public.
The Act has far-reaching consequences and broad application. It is not confined to regulating 'lobbyists'. Therefore, it is important for organisations and individuals generally to familiarise themselves with the legislation, and to consider if they are affected, as non-compliance with the Act is a criminal offence.
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Legal Services Regulation Bill
The Legal Services Regulation Bill finally became law in December 2015, 4 years after its initial publication and significant amendments.
Heralded as a "working recipe for the co-existence of the old and the new" by the Minister for Justice, the overall aim of the Act is to achieve equity of access to the justice system for all, through increased competition, independent oversight, and lower costs to the public.
The Act centres around 4 pillars of reform:
- a new, independently-nominated, Legal Services Regulatory Authority will have responsibility for the regulation of both solicitors and barristers, and will set and improve standards via new, binding, codes of practice;
- legal practitioners will be subject to professional discipline by a new Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal, which will replace and unify both the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, and the current Barristers' Professional Conduct Tribunal;
- a new, properly-resourced, Office of the Legal Costs Adjudicator will replace the current Taxing Master to deal with disputes regarding legal costs, and will publicise its procedures, and follow clear and updated "Legal Costs Principles" to determine disputes; and
- new Alternative Business Models are provided for, which may see the introduction of barristers' chambers, partnerships between solicitors and barristers, and "Multi-Disciplinary Practices" in which lawyers and non-lawyer professionals might provide complementary services in practice together.
What's on the Horizon for 2016?
The Banking Inquiry will publish its report in January 2016. Only the aftermath of its publication will reveal what the fall-out of this might be.
2016 will also see FOI bodies publishing the first "publication schemes" required by the FOI Act 2014, thus significantly increasing the amount of information available to the public in relation to them.
Contracting authorities will continue to probe the new facility introduced by amended Public Procurement regulations, which allows them to apply to the courts to lift suspensions that automatically apply to contract-award procedures when proceedings are brought.
2016 will also see the beginning of change in legal service provision and regulation.
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