Below is a summary of the main elements by which the Law Society of Northern Ireland regulates the solicitors branch of the legal profession in Northern Ireland.
- Regulation of solicitors in Northern Ireland is a statutory and delegated function conferred on LSNI (principally) by the Solicitors' (NI) Order 1976, as amended by the Solicitors' (NI) (Amendment) Order 1989;
- By virtue of this primary legislation, and secondary regulations made thereunder, LSNI through its governing Council is responsible for regulating professional standards, the propriety of solicitor's professional conduct in general and the handling of client's funds in particular, professional indemnity insurance and client compensation requirements, as well as the handling of complaints about solicitors made by their clients;
- The regulatory, disciplinary and compliance context within which LSNI operates is not self-determined. The main principles and parameters are in fact laid down by Parliament, and further reinforces that in Northern Ireland the public interest has informed and continues to be reflected in the governing primary legislation.
- In the exercise of its functions LSNI is subject in various ways to the oversight and supervision of the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland. For example, the LCJ acts in an appellate capacity for certain purposes, in the admission of solicitors to practice, and generally his concurrence is required before any Regulations approved by the Council can be implemented. This structure of accountability reflects the position of solicitors as officers of the court and members of an independent profession within the justice system;
- Apart from the supervisory jurisdiction of the Lord Chief Justice, LSNI is subject to a number of other "checks and balances". As a matter of policy and statute, provision is made for independent lay members to participate in the consideration of clients' complaints. In the more serious cases of professional misconduct, including breaches of the regulatory requirements prescribed by LSNI, and of inadequate professional services to clients, LSNI itself does not adjudicate but refers the matter to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal. This body again established by statute, is independent of LSNI. It is comprised from a panel of senior solicitors and lay persons appointed by the Lord Chief Justice. Where the question of referral on to the Tribunal arises out of a client complaint, both the individual client and the independent Lay Observer have a free-standing right to complain direct to the Tribunal;
- As an additional client protection measure, all solicitors in private practice are required to maintain Professional Indemnity Insurance at a level and to a specification prescribed by LSNI. This cover is a pre-condition to the ability to practice. As in Scotland (but not in England and Wales) LSNI has operated successfully for many years a mutual form of Professional Indemnity Insurance (through a corporate Master Policy) which provides a guarantee of recovery to clients where loss has been suffered through the actions of solicitors. This reflects positively the willingness of the profession in Northern Ireland to assume a collegiate approach to, and responsibility for, client protection;
- On the same principle, LSNI maintains by statutory authority a Compensation Fund. This Fund is uncapped, is maintained entirely by contributions from practising solicitors, and again is a prerequisite to the right to practice. The Fund provides an additional guarantee to clients of recovery of losses incurred as a result of a solicitor's default [for example, because of insolvency] or otherwise than in circumstances covered by the Professional Indemnity Insurance arrangements.
- In part because of the collegiate burden borne by the profession LSNI (again, as we understand it, in common with the Law Society of Scotland and as against the position in England and Wales) has always attached a high priority to pro-active monitoring of solicitors' practices. Thus, for example, solicitors' accounts are actively monitored by professional staff employed by LSNI on a regular and precautionary basis, as well as in response to specific concerns identified by LSNI in respect of particular practices. That is, action by LSNI is not dependent exclusively on a system of self-certified or audited accounts, but by detailed bookkeeping inspections and rigorous enforcement of the relevant regulations;
- In respect of complaints-handling the performance of LSNI is subject to review and comment by the independent Lay Observer (very broadly similar to the Legal Services Ombudsmen). Apart from the casework function of reviewing the handling of particular cases by LSNI, the Lay Observer makes recommendations periodically for improvement to procedures and other matters. In terms of the effectiveness of the current regulation model, a series of Lay Observers have commended consistently the efficiency with which complaints are handled by LSNI, and the degree of respect and seriousness with which the regulatory functions exercised by LSNI are taken by the profession. This is in marked distinction to experience in England and Wales.
- In the context of the public interest as it pertains in this jurisdiction it is worthwhile to note the following excerpt from a report from the Lay Observer. After commending the competency of the LSNI operation which "compares most favourably with the other parts of the UK", he continues:
"Factors which contribute to this position I believe include the comparatively small membership of the Law Society, thelargely cohesive concerns of that membership, the size of legal operations, the comparative closeness (e.g. geography,size of firms) to the elected officials and the highly professional standards shown by the vast majority of solicitors. Thesefactors (et alia) should be given due cognisance when new and appropriate self-regulation frameworks are beingconsidered thus avoiding unnecessarily imported solutions which may search for non-existent problems".
- In both the framing of regulations within its delegated authority and the discharge of all these regulatory functions, the overriding principle applied by LSNI is to regulate in the public interest. LSNI regulation carries with it a formidable and extensive range of client protections and practice requirements for which solicitors have taken corporate as well as individual responsibility, despite the fact that solicitors compete in an increasingly demanding professional environment;
- Without prejudice to these important protective mechanisms, and within the context of the effective enforcement of rigorous regulatory and ethical standards, LSNI seeks to promote positively both best commercial practice and management standards.