The Bar Standards Board (BSB) has been told that it needs to act more quickly on how it plans to educate the public about barristers after its widely criticised decision to stop funding consumer-facing website Legal Choices.
In a performance report on all the legal regulators published this week, the Legal Services Board (LSB) also criticised the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) for lack of transparency and accountability.
The LSB’s six-monthly update on the performance of each of the regulators tracks their progress against 26 outcomes.
Collectively, 23 of the 208 outcomes have yet to be met. The LSB said that “generally the pace of delivery is slow and governance over regulatory performance must improve. Most of the unmet outcomes are now 12 months old”.
The oversight regulator said the BSB’s decision to stop funding Legal Choices, which had hitherto been funded by all the legal regulators, was made “without a clear commitment to investing in alternatives”. The funding ceased on 1 November this year.
The LSB said this marked a “diminution” of its performance in terms of ensuring it was a “independent, transparent, consumer-focused” regulator.
“The BSB has informed us that it is currently devising a new public legal education strategy. However, we await detailed information on the ways the BSB proposes to address its obligations currently delivered through Legal Choices.”
As a result the LSB graded the BSB’s performance on this issue as ‘not met – action required’ – the lowest rating.
It has given the barristers’ regulator until the end of January to deliver “detailed information including costed and specific deliverables which explain how the BSB proposes to fulfil its consumer obligations previously delivered through Legal Choices”.
The LSB has also demanded records of the board-level discussions which informed the decision to withdraw from supporting the website.
The LSB, Legal Services Consumer Panel and Competition and Markets Authority have all criticised the BSB for its move.
Dr Helen Phillips, LSB chair, warned last month that “any regulator that chose not to support Legal Choices would have to invest significantly in alternatives”.
Meanwhile the SRA’s performance on accountability and transparency was also downgraded to ‘not met – action required’, again by 31 January 2020.
The LSB said the SRA had failed to provide it with “detailed plans” as to how and when it would improve “accountability to stakeholders” and transparency in the performance measures considered by its board.
Back in January, the LSB said the SRA, which has banned the public and press from board meetings since 2017, was “not sufficiently transparent” in explaining its decisions at that level.
The SRA was not alone in being criticised on transparency. The LSB said two of the ratings of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) had been downgraded to ‘not met – action required’.
The first of these related to the failure of the Find a Chartered Accountant register to include disciplinary data on probate services, which the ICAEW regulates, and to make it “fully accessible for all users”.
The second was because the pace of progress on improving transparency was “slow” and not “at a rate to meet the requirements of this outcome”.
The Faculty Office, which regulates notaries, also saw two of its ratings downgraded to ‘action required’.
The LSB said supporting papers were not published for the monthly regulatory meetings, and advice and minutes from its advisory board were not published.
It was also not “appropriate” that key performance indicators would not be published by the Faculty Office until 2021.
“With few decision documents available, there is limited evidence of how the Faculty Office is using learning from engagement with the notarial profession to inform its decisions.”
The oversight regulator said there were “clear links” between the failures of the SRA and other legal regulators on transparency and “recent discussions” about improving its own accountability.
“Our starting point on this is that it is difficult to see how a regulator can effectively provide adequate visibility of how its board holds the executive to account without holding public board meetings.
“The LSB wants to lead by example and we will demonstrate our commitment to transparency by holding a public board meeting during 2020.”
The LSB said that, in the light of the “lack of progress” by legal regulators, it would be launching a thematic review of its ‘well-led’ standard – which accounts for six of the outcomes – looking particularly at “overall public transparency and accountability” and “how well boards are holding their respective executives, or equivalent” to account.
The Intellectual Property Regulation Board became the first regulator to complete its outstanding actions and meet all 26 outcomes. The Council for Licensed Conveyancers and CILEx Regulation each have just one more to tick off.
LSB chief executive Matthew Hill said: “We’ve seen some welcome improvement but in some key areas, particularly leadership, progress remains too slow. We’ll be focusing closely on this next year to try to inject some pace.”
Meanwhile, a consultation issued jointly by the BSB and Bar Council has proposed increasing the regulator’s budget by 11% in the coming financial year, from £5.7m to £6.3m.
However, the cost of practising will not increase with the Bar Council’s accommodation and refurbishment programme about to conclude. “This has enabled the release of budget allocation to support the regulatory programme. The accommodation programme will reduce the space occupied by the GCB and drive efficiency savings,” the consultation said.
The increase reflects three BSB strategic initiatives: the dual running of exam systems for two years as the Future Bar Training programme is put in place (£264,000 each year), remunerating prosecutors’ work that was previously undertaken pro bono – at Treasury Solicitor civil rates, costing £231,000 a year – and updating the BSB handbook (£50,000).