Chair’s Dinner 2023: Speeches of Chair, Sara Phelan SC & of Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee TD

04 July 2023

On Thursday, 29th June 2023, the Chair of the Council of The Bar of Ireland, Sara Phelan SC, hosted a dinner and social gathering of colleagues from across the legal sector, at the Honorable Society of King’s Inns.

Guest of honour at the dinner, was Helen McEntee TD, Minister for Justice. Below are transcripts of both the Chair’s and Minister’s address to the two hundred assembled guests.

Speech of Chair, Sara Phelan SC

Distinguished guests, Minister, members of the judiciary, attorney general, colleagues, brothers and sisters, friends.

Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur romhaibh go léir um thráthnóna chuig an timpeallacht iontach atá in Óstaí an Rí.

I would like to welcome you all here this evening to the wonderful surroundings that are the King’s Inns, the educational institution of our great profession.

When thinking about what I might say in this brief address, I was reflecting on the vital role played by the Bar, and the Bar Council, in safeguarding access to justice for our citizens; our role in upholding the rule of law and the administration of justice; and our role in improving the working and professional lives of our members.

As many of you know, the Bar in Ireland is primarily composed of barristers who choose to practice as independent referral barristers, meaning that we are all self-employed sole-traders.

Sometimes, the advantages of this model of practice may not always be readily understood or be apparent to those who engage our professional services.

As independent referral barristers, we abide by what is known as the cab-rank rule, meaning that we cannot discriminate between clients,  we cannot pick & chose cases and subject to remuneration being agreed, we must take on any case that is within our professional competence.

This core value of the independent referral bar is an important component of access to justice and ensures equal access before the law for all litigants, regardless of whether they are a David or a Goliath, regardless of whether they, or their causes, are perceived as good, or not-so-good.

The structure of our independent referral bar also enables us to take on cases to effect social change for the betterment of the society in which we live, and for future generations too.  By way of example, civil legal aid in Ireland was first established on a non-statutory footing in 1979 following a case that was brought before the European Court of Human Rights

The availability of civil legal aid has ensured access to justice for countless individuals who would otherwise not be in a position to afford legal representation. I want to welcome the decision of our Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee, in June 2022 to initiate a review of our civil legal aid scheme – a civil legal aid scheme is a vital part of ensuring access to justice for our citizens and should not be taken for granted.

I also want to acknowledge our partner organisations who work tirelessly to promote access to justice for the vulnerable in our society – representatives of FLAC, Community Law & Mediation, and our own Voluntary Assistance Scheme, are all with us here tonight. The Bar of Ireland is proud to be associated with, and to support, these organisations.

Another very positive development this year has been the decision of Government to increase judicial numbers – a very necessary and welcome development that will enhance access to justice. The Bar is also mindful of the additional recommendations contained in the Judicial Planning Working Group Report and will continue to work with the Judiciary, the Courts Service and the Department to improve efficiencies in the justice system, as we have always done.

We are now at a cross-roads in the barrister profession with criminal and civil legal aid remuneration at an historic all-time low, despite the profession’s contribution to efficiencies in the justice system over the last 15 years.

With high levels of attrition at the criminal bar, we must ask ourselves what access to justice might look like in the future if there aren’t sufficient experienced and independent barristers available to prosecute, and to defend, those accused of crime.

A functioning legal aid system needs barristers to promote and defend the rights of those who do not have the means to fund their own legal representation.

And an absence of representation will have a detrimental effect on the most vulnerable in our society and on society as a whole.

It is my hope that Government will engage with us on our recent submissions on legal aid rates, where a decision is outstanding since July 2018.

I want to thank the Minister for Justice for her support in our call for restoration of professional fees and I welcome her support in advocating for the Bar amongst her cabinet colleagues.

The independent referral bar model, a profession composed of over 2,000 self-employed barristers, is not without its challenges. Similar to other professions and sectors, we face challenges in attracting and retaining talent and diversity at the Bar.

The uneven distribution of work throughout the profession, combined with the downward pressure on professional fees, has had a direct impact on our ability to attract and retain newly qualified barristers.

A career at the Bar is well-known to be a precarious one and is not for the faint-hearted

In my position as Chair of The Bar of Ireland, I recognise the important role that I, and my colleagues on the Bar Council, play in leading our profession and confronting the challenges hat our profession faces.

The rule of law is predicated on an independent judiciary, independent lawyers – and an independent referral bar – and this needs to be very carefully and jealously guarded.

My request to all of you here this evening is to do all that you can in your respective roles to ensure that the independent referral Bar continues to flourish so that the rights of all in  society are guaranteed and that everyone, and not just those who can afford representation, can access justice.

Finally, I wish to say a few thank yous.  To the events staff at The Bar of Ireland, Aoife, Melissa and Jennifer – thank you. Between them, they organise and deliver over 100 events annually at the Bar and it is a credit to their professionalism and high standards that events like this run so smoothly.

To my colleagues on the Bar Council, and its committees, and our Attorney General – thank you for all your support over the last year. When I put myself forward for election to the role, I knew that it would be hard work but I didn’t expect how much I would enjoy it.

To the most important person in my life, my husband Tom, thank you – without your love and never ending support and encouragement, I would not be a barrister, let alone in this role today.

And finally to all of you, thank you for attending tonight

Speech of Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee TD

Members of the Council of the Bar of Ireland and Distinguished Guests, Good evening to you all and thank you for having me here.

In particular, I want to thank the Chair of the Council of the Bar of Ireland, Sara Phelan SC, for the kind invitation.

It is a real privilege to be here.

We have many issues of common concern, and of common interest.

We may from time to time have areas where we differ in our views and opinions.

But, at the core, we believe in the same things.

Respect for the rule of law, which unfortunately we cannot take for granted in today’s world.

A desire for all our citizens to have timely access to justice.

And having modern legal and justice systems which meet the needs of today’s society.

I believe we are a reforming Government.

We are in the midst of a period of significant reform.

We are establishing a new Planning and Environmental Court.

We are building a new Family Justice System, a cause that is particularly close to my heart.

But I know that successful reform requires partnership.

I know successful partnerships are built on mutual trust and respect and I have huge respect for the work you and your members do.

That respect means I will ensure that you have the resources to serve our citizens, modernise our legal system and drive through reform.

I was particularly pleased to see the report of the Judicial Planning Working Group published earlier this year.

In 2021, I established the Group to bring a strategic focus to planning the number and type of judges required to ensure the efficient administration of justice in Ireland over the next five years.

The recommendations have been welcomed in all quarters and are the basis on which an additional 24 judges were approved by Government on the 21st of February.

I am pleased to say that these appointments have begun.

A further 20 judicial appointments will be made, on the condition of certain reforms and efficiencies having been implemented.

I know how important these appointments are.

We all know the benefits they will bring: a faster, more effective justice system; more cases being heard promptly and shorter waiting times.

I will bring more recommendations to Government before the summer recess.

We will also complement these new appointments by ensuring adequate support staff and accommodation are in place across the courts estate. And, in tandem with this, I also know that commitments to reform from the judiciary and legal sector will be fulfilled.

I am of course aware of your views, and the views of many of your members, on the issue of criminal legal aid fees.

Your Chair has made the views of the Bar known to me and to my Department, and she has made strong representation on behalf of her members.

None of us want to see a situation where barristers feel the need to protest on the steps of the Criminal Courts of Justice.

And I of course recognise the vital role played by barristers in undertaking criminal legal aid work.

I see no good reason why those in the legal profession are left waiting for crisis era reductions to be restored, while public and civil servants have had their pay restored.

It is very much on my agenda for the upcoming budgetary process and my discussions with Minister Donohoe.

I hope you are reassured that I will do my utmost to support you all in your work.

And I hope I will have your co-operation in implementing the many reforms we need to improve the legal and justice systems for our citizens.

This includes the implementation of the Peter Kelly plan which I published last year.

It is worth reminding ourselves again of its goal: enabling easier, cheaper and quicker access to civil justice.

As you know, the plan identifies a number of measures which have the aim of improving access to justice.

It recognises that no one action will have sufficiently address the issue on its own.

It also sets out specific actions and timeframes and maps out how this significant reform to civil law will be achieved.

The Group will provide an annual Progress Report to Government, the first of which is expected in the coming months.

Throughout this partnership, we will work together too on our modernisation and Digital First agenda across the entire Justice Sector.

We in Government have supported that commitment with significant investment in recent years.

Since 2021, we have provided €28 million to the Courts Service, including an extra €2.5 million more than was initially planned for 2023, for the 10-year Courts’ modernisation programme, which will deliver a new operating model for the Courts Service.

This model will be designed around the user, with simplified and standardised services and accessible data to inform decisions – all delivered through digital solutions.

A significantly increased use of digital technologies to provide an improved and user-centred service is absolutely vital.

The Courts Service has committed to expand the number of courtrooms that have the best modern technology.

The project brought the number of up-to-date technology courtrooms from 55 in 2020 to 120 at the end of 2022.

These courtrooms support remote and hybrid hearings and allow parties, witnesses, prisoners or Gardaí, to dial in remotely to a physical courtroom. They also support digital evidence display.

Investment is committed to continue expanding this technology to more courts over 2023 and 2024. 

And a digital Courts Service is key to the success of the Peter Kelly Implementation Plan, the Judicial Planning Working Group and the first National Family Justice Strategy.

The Bar of Ireland plays a crucial role in ensuring the integrity and professionalism of the legal profession across Ireland, promoting public awareness of legal issues, while providing guidance and upholding the rights of all citizens.

From my perspective, true equality means ensuring fair and equitable access to justice for everyone, regardless of financial status or level of education.

It is this fundamental principle that underpins the ambitious justice reforms committed to in the Programme for Government and set out in my Justice Plans.

As I have already mentioned, one of my main priorities as Minister is family justice reform.

Unfortunately, the justice system was not built with the needs of families and children going through extremely difficult times in their lives in mind.

We all know families and children who have gone through these moments but unfortunately they are not served by a family justice system which is fit for purpose.

There are so many people in this area doing superb work, and we all want to build a better family justice system together.

What I want to achieve is a family justice system with the needs of families and children at its centre. At the moment, the system too often makes difficult moments even tougher.

This can be through archaic structures, or cases being put off too easily in areas of the country where there are no dedicated family courts.

And it can also be caused by court buildings and facilities which simply are not suitable for hearing family law cases.

Of course, protecting the vulnerable children and parents and those who are survivors of Domestic and Gender Based Violence is at the very core of our family justice reform programme, particularly how the civil, family and criminal law interact in many of these awful cases.

With the Family Justice Strategy and the Family Courts Bill 2022, I am setting out a vision for a family justice system of the future – one that focuses on the needs and rights of children.

One that makes it easier for vulnerable families and parents to access justice

This is crucial to ensuring fair and equal access to justice.

Through the implementation of the 9 goals and 50 actions in the Family Justice Strategy, I intend that:

  1. We will have a family justice system with the interests of children and families at its core
  2. It will be easier for families to access justice
  3. Access to information will be easier – people will know what their options are
  4. The physical, built environment of the family courts will be vastly improved

I firmly believe improving access to justice also means ensuring we improve pathways to a career in the legal profession.

That we have a diversity of people working at all levels – at the Bar and on the bench.

I’d like to pay tribute to the Bar Council for work they have done to increase diversity.

Just this week you launched a survey of 2,150 barristers to examine issues of diversity and inclusion at the Bar.

I am aware it is one of the actions in your Equality Action Plan and I would encourage as many as people as possible to take part in it.

I look forward to reading its findings and how they will shape the Bar’s further work to increase diversity and ensure the legal profession is more representative of the Ireland of today.

Another key element of the Equality Action Plan is, of course, your recently launched Equitable Briefing Policy.

It calls attention to unconscious bias in briefing decisions and encourages a more equitable distribution of briefs in all areas of practice.

I commend you on that work, and I hope the State plays its part in achieving equality in briefing.

You have taken many other initiatives in the Bar Council.

In particular, I would like to complement you on your mentoring system to help women succeed in their careers at the Bar.

It was established because it was quite clear that women at the Bar were not receiving sufficient work or opportunities.

Both its aims and practices are excellent – promoting equality and diversity by providing greater support to female barristers, and prioritising those who have no other supports at the Bar or in the legal profession generally.

As a woman working in a profession which has been male dominated, I can see how important these kind of programmes are.

I am told that to date 152 pairings have been successfully created under the programme, and that several mentees have since taken silk or have been called to the bench.

And I know, Chair, that not only are you a great champion of the scheme – but that you have been both a mentee and a mentor.

And others, such as President Barniville, were instrumental in its establishment.

It is a real example of the practical steps which can be taken to increase diversity.

For my part, as Minister for Justice, I will not be found wanting either.

As you probably know, I some time ago asked the Legal Services Regulatory Authority to consider the economic and other barriers faced by young barristers and solicitors and to make recommendations to me.

I know this work has taken some time to complete, but I am looking forward to real progress being made soon.

My officials are now engaging with the LSRA on how best we can progress and implement reforms based on their findings – on legal services education, reducing barriers to entry and increasing diversity across the professions.

That work is entering its final phases and I hope to be in a position to bring proposals arising from that work to Government after the summer recess.

In the coming weeks, I hope to enact the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill.

I want to be clear – the Bill has been debated long enough, and we need now to progress with reform.

Under the Bill, the Commission will be obliged to set out its strategy for the achievement of diversity.

The Commission will then also be required to publish regular diversity statements – two years after it is first established, and then every four years after that.

These statements will include the procedures it is using to remove barriers faced by those from under represented communities who want to become judges.

As I said at the outset, we cannot take for granted the respect we have in this country for the rule of law.

An independent judiciary and the efficient and effective administration of justice are fundamental elements of that, and the Judicial Appointments Bill will uphold those traditions.

We unfortunately do not have to look too far to see the judiciary and legal practitioners being undermined for the sake of politics.

To see the impartiality of judges and lawyers being attacked.

Judges being labelled as enemies of the people, or lawyers being dismissed because of a perceived political persuasion.

I sincerely hope we never see such discourse gain a footing in our politics.

We must always remind ourselves of how fundamental respect for the rule of law is for a healthy democracy.

And we must work together to ensure that respect is maintained.

It is central to our international reputation, which I have seen first-hand when working with Ireland for Law to promote Ireland as destination for international arbitration – work I will continue to support.

In closing, I thank you all for your skill, commitment and dedication to achieving justice for those you represent.

I look forward to working with the Bar of Ireland, and my colleagues from all facets of the legal sector, to progress the momentous changes and improvements we have discussed here today.

Thank you.