The Co-operative has become the first major consumer brand to be licensed by the solicitors’ regulatory body to offer the full range of high street legal services. Co-operative Legal Services was set up in 2006 and was yesterday granted – along with two smaller solicitors’ firms – an ABS (or alternative business structures) licence by the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
‘When the Legal Services Act was first drafted it was envisaged that its enactment would enable consumer brands to enter the closed world of legal services, so this is an historic occasion not only for the Co-operative Legal Services but for all customers needing access to legal services in the UK,’ commented Eddie Ryan, managing director of Co-operative Legal Services. Ryan called the move ‘a natural extension’ to the range of services they provide alongside banking, pharmacy and Funeralcare.
Will commentators finally start calling the ongoing process of deregulation ‘Co-Op Law’ instead of ‘Tesco Law’ (the latter having shown no interest in the legal services market)? ‘If they continue to call it Tesco Law, I’ll be bemused,’ said Ryan. ‘“Co-Op law” should have been adopted some six years ago as soon as we established Co-Operative legal services.’
Ryan said that the Co-Op was ‘committed to playing a leading role in this new era by offering straightforward value-for-money expert legal services’ backed by ‘an ethos of social responsibility and a level of protection that can be provided by a diverse, multi-billion pound organisation’.
Justice Minister Jonathan Djanogly MP visited Co-operative Legal Services in Bristol yesterday. The minister called the move ‘a huge milestone for UK legal services and the future of Alternative Business Structures’.
Bridging the gap
A key part of its move into legal services will be a low-price, fixed fee tariff for divorce work. At the end of last year, the Co-Op hired two leading family lawyers from the legal aid firm TV Edwards including Christina Blacklaws, who chairs the Law Society’s legal affairs and policy board.
Blacklaws is mindful of the impact of the Legal Aid, Punishment and Sentencing of Offenders Bill which will scrap legal aid for most family advice. ‘Legal aid has provided a really important safety net for people over the last 50 years and that safety net is being pulled away,’ she says. ‘The only access to the legal aid scheme is if there is evidence of domestic violence. What does that say? Hopefully we will help to bridge the gap.’
‘No one likes hourly rates,’ Blacklaws says. ‘We are going to be doing away with that and have good value quality fixed-price services.’ She promises it will be ‘as reasonably priced as we can possibly make it’ and ‘accessible to large numbers of people in this country’.
Jon is editor of the Justice Gap. He is a freelance journalist. Jon's books include The First Miscarriage of Justice (Waterside Press, 2014), The Justice Gap (LAG, 2009) and People Power (Daily Telegraph/LawPack, 2008). Jon is a journalism lecturer at Winchester University and a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln. He is twice winner of the Bar Council's journalism award (2015 and 2005) and is shortlisted for this year's Criminal Justice Alliance's journalism award