It seems hardly creditable that only six years on from the Legal Services Act (LSA) that shook up the regulation of the legal profession, with the dust hardly churned up by alternative business structures, let alone settled, we are revisiting the subject.
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It is not a subject that many people get too excited about, although I may just be one of them. Like cloud computing, the single transferable vote and the rules of cricket it is one of those things where users really shouldn’t need to know how it works, only that it does. Unfortunately consumers who know little, or nothing, about legal regulation can find themselves left high and dry.
Take buying a will. You could get your will from a regulated solicitor and then if it all goes wrong you can complain to the Legal Ombudsman. But if you get your will from an unregulated will writer you are only protected if they are a member of one of the bodies signed up to the Trading Standards approved code of practice. Good, but not as good. And if you use a DIY kit or get your will from someone without any redress scheme, you won’t have any protection at all.
It would be unreasonable to expect consumers to know all this, so it’s not terribly surprising that recent research by Northumbria University finds consumers ‘ill-equipped to choose between different providers with different levels of protection, confused as to how the market works and unwilling to pursue redress when dissatisfied’.
What is surprising is that there is any opposition at all to the idea put forward by the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) for a one-stop shop for legal redress including not only the 130,000 unregulated providers of legal services, but for a wide range of professionals without any dispute resolution scheme, such as chartered accountants, some property professionals, tax advisers and architects.
However, if you dare to look at the comments sections in some of the legal press, there it is, writ large.
I am sure the LeO isn’t perfect, but it’s independent and it’s necessary, even if most lawyers get so good at customer service and their own complaints handling it doesn’t get much business. Those complaining about it would do well to remember how what came before was a direct cause of the LSA they so dislike.
The ombudsman’s call for an extension to its remit coincides with a government review of legal regulation, itself given greater momentum by a new industrial strategy which stresses the importance for boosting the UK’s professional and business services sector of a ‘favourable business environment’. We can only hope this is not a euphemism for ‘less consumer protection’.
Any burden of regulation is caused by the complexity of the system and not the rules and regulations put in place to protect consumers. It would be a colossal step backwards if independent regulation and complaints handling were diluted in any way.
Either way, I suspect any solution arrived at by the review will be far removed from mine, which would be to consolidate all the regulators and all legal activity under one Legal-Services Board roof. If all lawyers are as good as they say they are, they’d have nothing to fear.
Louise is a consumer champion and communications specialist. Before this, she ran a successful campaign for change in the legal sector (resulting in the Legal Services Act), worked in a law firm and at the Law Society. She is a trustee of the Public Law Project and cares about justice, fairness and cake.