Policing and justice report

Building for a bright future

Newly elected President of the Law Society of Northern Ireland, Darren Toombs, talks about his and the Law Society’s priorities for the year ahead, with a focus on skills, education, and the network of solicitors supporting Northern Ireland’s communities and businesses.

Education and access to the profession

Toombs, a partner in local law firm Carson McDowell, explains his top priority is investing in the next generation: “I have always been passionate about legal education and training. As President of the Law Society I am committed to identifying ways to improve access to the legal profession and supporting those wishing to follow a career in law.

“I was first co-opted to the Society’s education committee having served on the Northern Ireland Young Solicitors Association for several years. I think my interest stems from a personal feeling, that at all of my sliding door moments, the door just happened to slide the right way for me.

“It should not have to be like that. I hope that I can gently push open the door to broaden the entry and access points to more individuals and also to a more diverse range of applicants.

That is why I was very proud last year to lead a group which created a new Centenary bursary scheme, which resulted in two very worthy applicants receiving bursaries of around £10,000 to assist in their training to become solicitors.

“As the professional body for the solicitor profession, the onus is on the Law Society to be responsive to the changes happening in the economy and society.”

“We know that Northern Ireland’s legal economy has changed dramatically over recent years with our excellent local talent attracting international firms to these shores. While this has grown the sector and is an economic success story, it has also led to a shortage of solicitors in the jurisdiction and many firms are struggling to recruit.

“As the professional body for the solicitor profession, the onus is on the Law Society to be responsive to the changes happening in the economy and society. This includes looking at our legal education system to ensure it is fit for the future and produces the pipeline of new talent required to meet the needs of Northern Ireland’s people and businesses.

“The Institute of Professional Legal Studies will continue to be the cornerstone of legal education here and we have worked with the IPLS to increase their capacity in recent years. But I see a need to look wider and consider what additional pathways are appropriate. That might include higher level apprenticeships or bringing back the ‘clerking route’ to becoming a solicitor.”

Access to justice and community legal services

After graduating in 1998, the Warrenpoint native undertook an apprenticeship with MacElhatton & Company Solicitors in Belfast, experience which he explains he will be drawing on during his presidency: “I am very familiar with the challenges for solicitors working in general practice solicitor firms across the province.

“My predecessor, Brian Archer, a sole practitioner, worked tirelessly on the issue of legal aid. From my own days working in general practice, I recall the challenges of legal aid work and it has become much worse since then. The additional funds announced towards the end of 2023 for the legal aid budget are welcome, following our engagement with the Department of Justice and the Legal Services Agency. But while getting the right budget in place is vital, there is a clear need to look at the wider picture.

“I am hopeful that the Fundamental Review of Criminal Legal Aid, being led by Tom Burgess, will bring about real and lasting results for the firms struggling to provide this vital service and uphold access to justice for their clients in constrained times. A big focus for the Society in the year ahead will be providing evidence to support this review and demonstrate the importance and value of the work done by solicitors in the criminal justice system.

“Of course, the Society’s work to make the case for investment in access to justice and in the wider justice system is not helped by the absence of the Assembly and Executive at Stormont. While we would hope to see political decisionmakers back in position shortly, the Society will continue to engage with the parties and with officials in the Department of Justice, making the case for access to justice and reform of our justice system.”

A modernised Law Society

In addition to influencing externally, the Law Society also has an ambitious programme of reform internally: “The Law Society is quite unique in that we are both the regulatory and the representative body for solicitors in Northern Ireland. That brings with it a huge amount of responsibility which we take very seriously.

“Recently, the Law Society Council agreed a transformation programme that will ensure that we build on our strengths as an effective regulator and also be responsive to the needs of our members. So, a key part of my work as President will be to listen and engage proactively with stakeholders, decision-makers, and members, to address their issues and identify how they can be best supported moving forward.”

A busy year ahead

Reflecting on the year ahead Toombs says: “I am all too aware that this year will fly by and I am determined to make the most of it. I will continue to champion the excellence of our profession at home and abroad as well as promoting the importance of maintaining the network of solicitor firms, large and small, across Northern Ireland, who provide advice ­– and most importantly, access to justice to the local community and to business.”

T: 028 9023 1614
E: policy@lawsoc-ni.org
W: www.lawsoc-ni.org

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