There is a “real risk” to legal services in Northern Ireland from a shortage of solicitors, both in terms of legal aid provision and the ability of commercial firms to grow, a report has found.
Northern Ireland has had the fastest growing legal and accounting sector of any UK region since 2013, it said, but the “extraordinary growth” of Belfast and its surroundings was “exacerbating existing shortages of legal support” further afield.
Legal consultancy Hook Tangaza said the number of solicitors had grown steadily “to reflect the needs of a growing population, an increasingly sophisticated economy and a complex post-conflict society in which rule of law and access to justice have a particular significance”.
Now Northern Ireland needed more university places for law students if it was to avoid a lack of solicitors, caused by “a shortage of law graduates and the rapid expansion of competitors for a limited talent pool”.
The report, commissioned by the Law Society of Northern Ireland in its centenary year, said there were around 6,000 solicitors on the roll. More than 3,000 were “actively working” in the legal profession, with 86% or 2,580 holding practicing certificates.
Researchers said that, since 2000, around 60% of all newly admitted solicitors in Northern Ireland were women.
“Although Northern Ireland now has a female chief justice and there have now been 10 female presidents of the Law Society, women are still under-represented in the senior ranks of the private practising profession, where only 30% of partners in solicitor firms are women”.
Women solicitors were most commonly found working in-house for companies (64%) or in the public sector (75%).
While Northern Ireland accounted for only around 2.5% of employment in the UK legal services sector, with around 9,000 jobs, there had been 13 mergers between local firms and top 100 English firms in the past decade.
With City firms setting up operations in Belfast and “more and more English legal work” being conducted there, the city “now plays host to more UK‑headquartered international firms than any other UK city outside of London”.
Researchers said around a quarter of Northern Irish firms were considering a merger but the small size of firms was reflected in the fact that only 2% had 11 or more partners, and a further 6% between five and 10 partners.
In terms of staff, the picture was rather different, with the number of law firms with more than 50 employees doubling over the last decade.
Researchers described legal aid as “perhaps the most immediate concern” for the legal services sector.
“Whilst attention is often given to the impact that a loss of legal aid provision would have on deprived communities, the risk that the supply side of the equation may fail is usually overlooked.
“The continued existence of a local network of solicitor firms, and the ability of citizens to access legal aid funded services through them, is under threat.
“A very high proportion of solicitor firms in some of the local council areas with the greatest need for legal aid funding are owned by sole practitioners over the age of 60, or by two partners, one of whom is over 60.
“The ongoing willingness and ability of these individuals to remain in practice can no longer be assured if legal aid rates remain frozen and payment for services are delayed.”
Researchers painted a more positive picture on Brexit, where Northern Ireland’s “unique position” presented “new post‑Brexit opportunities” for the local profession.
In particular, the memorandum of understanding entered into by the law societies of Northern Ireland and Ireland in relation to cross-border practice and data-sharing meant that clients could be served “seamlessly across the island of Ireland”.