THE LATEST solicitor guild to be stung by reforms abolishing self-regulation, the Law Society of Tasmania, may also be the first to take politicians directly to task.
In the wake of last week’s announcement that a Legal Profession Board (LPB) would be created to take control of all regulatory aspects, Law Society president Chris Cunningham hinted that a challenge to attorney-general Judy Jackson’s reforms was likely.
“I’ve got a few thoughts up my sleeve,” he said. “At the moment these reforms are sweeping and we [the Government and Law Society] are far apart.”
Cunningham would not elaborate any further other than to say “the door was not shut” on the possibility of negotiations between the two parties.
In essence, Jackson’s changes go further than those initiated by Queensland and Victorian counterparts this year, who instead opted for a Legal Services Commissioner to field and investigate consumer complaints.
On top of discipline, the LPB will also be responsible for issuing practising certificates, supervising trust accounts, and developing the rules of practice.
While he encouraged the decision to relieve the society of discipline, Cunningham was staunch in his belief that it should retain all other functions.
“We have the breadth and depth of experience. The board won’t have that,” he said.
According to Cunningham, the new structure — to be totally funded by the Apple Isle’s 450 solicitors — could be expensive in more ways than one. He claimed rumblings portending professional liability premium increases among insurers had already commenced.
“We try to keep CLE [continuing legal education] and things like that which prevent risk turning over. Being a small profession, it’s easier for us to do it,” he said. “We have direct input and control over our members and a responsibility not to let professional indemnity insurance get too expensive.”
“The board won’t have that interest, we will.”
The LPB will accommodate six members, four of whom — including the chair — are expected to be lawyers.
Legal Ombudsman Judith Paxton, whose office will become redundant once the new structure is in place, questioned whether that split would remove perceptions of bias.
“It’s still a small community here and it may be difficult to prevent the perception that [the board] is still part of the old boys’ network,” she said.
Having recommended complaints be handled independently for some time, Paxton welcomed the initiative. She was optimistic that the new system would work well provided it was properly resourced.
“There needs to be a realistic appreciation of the workload required,” she said.
“It’s easy to underestimate how much work is involved,” Cunningham added. “The main criticism levelled at [the law society] was the timeliness of the investigation process. If that is going to be improved the board had better be fully resourced.”
When asked by Lawyers Weekly how many staff the LPB would have at its disposal, Jackson was unable to specify.
Cunningham predicted “a degree of bureaucracy” involved in setting the LPB up would result in an extra financial burden for solicitors.
Jackson said that such concerns were instrumental in her decision to reject the LSC model and plump for a regulatory system similar to those used in Western Australia and South Australia.