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FTC investigates bar association over LawTalk ban

A billboard ad promotes legal counselling app LawTalk in Seoul on Aug. 5. (Yonhap)
A billboard ad promotes legal counselling app LawTalk in Seoul on Aug. 5. (Yonhap)
South Korea’s Fair Trade Commission is looking into a case filed by legal counselling app LawTalk earlier this year against the Korean Bar Association after the organization decided to ban its members from joining such platforms.

The clash between the disruptive mobile service and the bar association, which led to a series of tit-for-tat actions including a Constitutional Court case, could be judged from a fair trade point of view, if the FTC determines the association as a business association.

Under current rules, organizations formed with more than two business people with the goal of increasing economic profit are considered a business association.

As the association collects membership fees and that all practicing lawyers are required to join them, it is likely that the FTA could see it as a business association, watchers said.

If the KBA is considered one, the FTC will look into whether it has breached the Fair Trade Act over unfair joint actions and interfering with business activities.

Launched in 2014, LawTalk enjoyed growing popularity as a legal counseling app by making legal advice more accessible and affordable, drawing comparisons with ride-hailing and food delivery apps.

Nearly 4,000 lawyers had signed up for the app as of March last year, which is estimated to account for more than 10 percent of all practicing lawyers in the country. But the figure dropped to 2,855 on Aug. 3, according to Law & Company, the app’s operator -- one day before the KBA’s effective ban on such apps took effect as the association argues the app disrupts the legal services market.

Last week, the KBA said it would launch a free, online legal counselling platform as an alternative to LawTalk.

The Fair Trade Act prohibits business associations from unfairly limiting competition such as restricting counterparties’ choice. They are also prohibited from limiting the scope of business activities of its members including advertising, operating days and hours as well as how they operate.

The KBA will also be investigated over the legality of its decision to ban its members from offering legal aid on platforms like LawTalk.

If the FTC finds that there have been breaches of law, the commission will send an examination report to the KBA which is an equivalent of the prosecution’s letter of indictment.

But given the precedents at the FTC, the ruling on the case surrounding LawTalk and the KBA is unlikely come quickly.

In June, some 60 lawyers who participate in LawTalk also brought the matter to the Constitutional Court, asking the top court to stop the bar association’s anti-LawTalk rule from taking effect. The court has yet to decide on the issue.

By Yim Hyun-su (hyunsu@heraldcorp.com)
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