Ombudsman adds voice to concerns over plan to scrap Consumer Panel

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By Legal Futures

21 October 2010

Sampson: planning for life without the consumer panel

The Legal Ombudsman has added his voice to concerns at plans to merge the Legal Services Consumer Panel into Citizens Advice.

Adam Sampson said the panel is “so important” because it is otherwise hard to gauge consumer views. He warned that if it is rolled into Citizens Advice (see story), he will still “need someone I can talk to who I believe truly represents consumer interests”.

He continued: “Unfortunately, for all its virtues, Citizens Advice cannot do that. In the end, it (like Shelter, which I used to run) is a big organisation offering services to consumers, which is not the same thing at all. Indeed, given that there is every likelihood that Citizens Advice will be one of the bodies which will come within our jurisdiction next year (it too employs lawyers and provides legal advice), it would seem bizarre if I were required to consult that same organisation about the views of consumers.”

He said the ombudsman is “planning ahead” for what it would do if the decision is confirmed.

Legal Services Board chairman David Edmonds has also expressed his concern over the conflict issue (see story).

However, Legal Futures has begun hearing the counter-arguments. The 416 Citizens Advice Bureaux (CABx) across England and Wales are all independent registered charities and all members of Citizens Advice, the membership organisation – also an independent registered charity – that provides training and support to member CABx, and coordinates national policy work.

This means that Citizens Advice does not give direct advice or legal advice to consumers and as such, it will be individual bureaux that will be regulated under the special body provisions of the Legal Services Act 2007 and not Citizens Advice. Thus, it is argued, there would be no conflict of interest. At the same time, there is the possibility of Citizens Advice applying to become the regulator of the CABx, where the conflict would be unavoidable.

On the positive side, it is argued that Citizens Advice has proven itself a strong voice for consumers, using client evidence from the bureaux to make its case and has a strong record of producing research that has influenced a range of legal policy making, including the legal services reforms. It has also been suggested that as the profession pays for the panel, the merger could reduce the costs levied on lawyers for regulation – although with only two members of staff, the panel does not cost a huge amount.

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