For the first time ever, solicitors are now eligible to become senior counsel, a title held by roughly 325 barristers at present. This landmark change to the 300 year-old rule is provided for within legislation passed five years ago, which has recently been enacted.

Until now, the role of senior counsel has been solely confined to practicing barristers within the State. This historic change to the Irish legal system is widely regarded as a necessary step in the modernisation of the Irish legal system, leaving behind some of the unnecessary relics and traditions of the past, which prevented many of the best legal minds in Ireland from applying for the title of senior counsel.

The change sees an erosion of the distinction between barrister and solicitor, with some suggesting that this distinction could be further fused in the future, leading to a judicial system more akin to that of the United States, moving away from the traditional and entirely separate roles of barrister and solicitor.

The Legal Services Regulatory Authority (LSRA) is now seeking applications from both junior barristers and solicitors for the position of senior counsel, with the closing date set for 5 pm on the 24th of July. Applicants must be willing to “advance an argument that is not popular and be committed to their duty to the court, particularly where the duty may conflict with their client’s interest”.

The Legal Services Regulation Act 2015 paved the way for the establishment of the LSRA Advisory Committee, a body which will now consider applications from both sides of the legal isle. Applicants must include references from “a current or former judge at any level and one from a legal practitioner”.

Successful applicants will remain solicitors, however, it is still unclear what effect the change will have on the incomes of the new breed of solicitors welcomed into the inner bar. For many barristers, the step up to senior counsel means a considerable improvement in their income, allowing them to charge a further 50 per cent.

The Legal Services Regulation Act 2015 allows patents to be granted to legal practitioners who have shown “a degree of competence and a degree of probity appropriate to and consistent with the grant to him or her of a Patent”. Moreover, applicants must show “one or more of the following: a proven capacity for excellence in the practice of advocacy; a proven capacity for excellence in the practice of specialist litigation ; or specialist knowledge of an area of law”.

The legal community now awaits to see who will be the first solicitor conferred with the title of senior counsel will be. Speaking to the Irish Times, the director-general of the Law Society, Ken Murphy, said that “there will be great interest in seeing who the first Irish solicitor in history to be made senior counsel will be”.

The effects of this historic change remain to be seen, however the flexibility it offers law graduates can only be seen as a positive. Perhaps the change will be the first step in merging the roles of barrister and solicitor, allowing the best legal minds in Ireland to provide the services they feel their skillset best matches.

Patrick Doherty – Law Reporter