21 May 2021

Irish law society director slams health minister's 'distasteful' comments on legal profession

Politician said law firms were 'potentially licking their lips' at the prospect of suing the state following a cyberattack

Irish Minister for health Stephen Donnelly speaks to the media as he arrives at Government buildings in Dublin.

Stephen Donnelly By Damien Storan; Shutterstock

The director general of Ireland’s law society has hit back at comments made by the Irish health minister Stephen Donnelly that law firms were “potentially licking their lips” at the chance to sue the state over a cyberattack on the country’s healthcare service.

Mary Keane said: “The Law Society of Ireland is deeply disappointed by the recent comments regarding the legal profession made by Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, which we view as offensive and disrespectful to over 12,000 solicitors who work tirelessly to protect and serve their clients every day.”

Keane urged Donnelly to apologise for the comments, which he made on Ireland’s Newstalk Breakfast radio show on Thursday. Donnelly said he had "seen some... legal firms already advertising, potentially licking their lips, at the thoughts of being able to sue the state".

He added: “I find it very distasteful I have to say. We have been attacked as a nation. Our patients in the HSE [Health Service Executive] have been attacked and we are doing everything we can to respond.”

Keane suggested that Donnelly’s comments were an effort to deflect the narrative away from the challenges the minister is currently facing.

She added: “This blatant attempt to insult the integrity of an entire profession that exists to provide access to justice for all citizens is unacceptable, extremely damaging and, to use Mr Donnelly’s words, ‘distasteful’.”

Lawyers were also irked by Donnelly’s remarks. Michael O’Dowd, a data protection lawyer and founder of Cork-based O’Dowd Solicitors, published a blog in the wake of the cyberattack, underscoring the extent to which patients are worried about what the implications of the attack are for them, adding that anybody whose appointments were cancelled, had tests delayed or other treatments interfered with by the attack could have a cause of action.

The blog asked those impacted by the data breach to submit their details, 'solely for the purpose' of being kept up to date with the cyberattack.

Speaking to Newstalk Breakfast today, O’Dowd said he was ‘astounded’ by the minister’s comments, adding that it is the job of solicitors to represent people.

He said: “To help them be aware of their rights. To enforce their rights as necessary. It is no more or less than that – it is another organ of the state, the judiciary, who decides whether it is appropriate or not.”