Consumer chief calls for lawyers’ competence to be tested every five years

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By Legal Futures

31 March 2010

On the pulse: lawyers should face same regime as doctors

Lawyers should undergo five-yearly competence testing, as well as face peer review of the advice they provide clients, the chairwoman of the Legal Services Consumer Panel has said.

Dr Dianne Hayter said continuing professional development was an insufficient check of quality and that she would like to see a more formal system of testing, similar to the ‘revalidation’ scheme being put in place for doctors.

From 2011, doctors will have to demonstrate, normally every five years, that they are up to date and fit to practise, and complying with the relevant professional standards.

“The problem with CPD is that you go for more and more training in the areas that you’re interested in, rather than the areas you’re not very good at,” she said.

Dr Hayter continued that compliance currently focused on issues such as the speed with which a letter was sent to a client, rather than what it actually contained. “If you’re a lawyer and you send a letter to somebody, it could be absolutely bad legal advice and no one would ever know, because there’s no peer review. There’s no checking.”

The panel has yet to discuss Dr Hayter’s ideas, although the Legal Services Board’s business plan does anticipate asking the panel’s advice on quality assurance.

Law Society chief executive Desmond Hudson said: “Regulators of the legal profession – as elsewhere – are under an obligation to ensure the protection of the public and that regulation is proportionate. We would be interested to see the evidence on which Dr Hayter has concluded that mandatory periodic competence testing across the board is necessary to achieve that.”

Mr Hudson argued that the current regulatory regime is “extremely rigorous” and that the majority of firms are practicing to very high standards. “It will also be interesting to see how peer knowledge of confidential advice from solicitor to the client can be expected to operate,” he added.

Samantha Barrass, executive director of regulation at the Solicitors Regulation Authority, said that as part of its changing approach to regulation, the SRA will look at how education and training requirements can become “more risk-based and outcomes-focused”.

She said: “This will include consideration both of explicit requirements on individuals in key roles and a new scheme for CPD. We welcome the contribution of the Legal Services Consumer Panel to this debate.”

Legal regulation specialist Iain Miller, head of commercial litigation in the London office of Legal Futures Associate Bevan Brittan, said a market system should push out those unfit to practise. “You risk imposing an unnecessary layer of regulation on 98% of [competent] solicitors that may or may not affect the 2% who survive market forces,” he said.

Read our blog on competence testing.

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