TRANSPORT Minister Shane Ross has signalled a clampdown on excessive legal fees will follow his crusade to reform the way judges are appointed.
Transport Minister Shane Ross with Chief Supt Aidan Reid and Moyagh Murdock of the road Safety Authority last week.Amid bitter political fights with legal eagles in Leinster House, Mr Ross has warned that the “whole gravy train” in the legal profession needs to be derailed.
The minister, whose controversial Judicial Appointments Bill is expected to finally pass through the Seanad this week, told the Irish Independent that politicians with legal backgrounds are “fighting a rear guard action because it disturbs their cosy way of life”.
Mr Ross said he does not expect to gain any votes in his Dublin-Rathdown constituency for taking on the legal profession, but has a long-standing view that cronyism should be stamped out.
“It’s obvious that a large number of the judiciary are politically connected and have been for a very long time. The idea that judges, and specifically District Court judges, were appointed exclusively on merit is frankly ridiculous.
“The dogs on the street know that people who were involved in politics and have political connections got preferential treatment when it came to appointing judges.”
His bill will establish a new body with a lay chairperson and majority to select judges for appointment. The move has been criticised by a Council of Europe report, but Mr Ross is undeterred.
The minister indicated he will not stop at judicial appointments.
“I think it’s worth pursuing legal costs, certainly. You can’t do everything at the same time.
“I’m not on a crusade against individual lawyers or anything like that, but I think there are issues which lawyers have to address and cost of barristers’ fees are too high. That’s probably one of the reasons why they are resisting this bill.
“That whole gravy train is under much more scrutiny. The kind of cosy way they look after each other is something which is also being examined as a result of this bill.”
In the Circuit Criminal Court, a senior counsel can get a brief fee of €1,716 for preparing and opening a case, and refresher fees of €858 for every day it runs. The brief fee for junior counsel and solicitors is €1,144 and refresher fees are €572 and €418 per day respectively.
However, in the civil courts, where there is no set fee rate, the amounts charged can be considerably higher.
For example, in a High Court civil action a senior counsel can currently command a brief fee of up to €20,000.
Refresher fees can be up to €5,000 compared to €1,000 a decade ago. It is not unknown for senior counsel to charge a brief fee of €45,000 for “big money” commercial cases.
“Let’s have a look at legal fees, solicitors’ fees, barristers’ fees. That’s a very legitimate thing to look at next,” Mr Ross said.
The minister acknowledged his plans have “provoked the most incredible backlash, which I didn’t expect”.
“The venom of lawyers, particularly those who write for the media, the venom of judges… has been quite extraordinary,” he said. “It’s kind of united the establishment against it. That’s why it’s been such a long fight.
“Political parties like Fianna Fáil, who have been guilty of these sort of appointments, patronising their own people and giving them places on the bench, are against it.”