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Consumer panel attacks BSB over price transparency

Chambers: Call for focus on barristers’ communication skills

Access to justice is not only about legal aid and includes information about lawyers’ fees, the Legal Services Consumer Panel has told the Bar Standards Board (BSB).

The panel also called on the BSB to improve the way barristers communicate with consumers.

Responding to a consultation on the BSB’s strategic programme for 2019-2022, Sarah Chambers, the panel’s chair, said access to justice “goes beyond accessing (legal aid) funds”.

Ms Chambers went on: “Consumers need access to information on prices, services, and quality in order to be confident to use the services of legal professionals and to make the best decisions for their needs.

“Consumers’ perception that legal services are unaffordable is a barrier, and this is reinforced by a lack of access to up-front information on prices.

“The panel is disappointed to see that the BSB does not stress the need for greater transparency about information on costs, quality and services further to the Competition and Markets Authority’s findings in their study.”

Ms Chambers said she was aware that the BSB would soon be submitting its new price transparency rules to the Legal Services Board for approval, rules which the panel believed were “unlikely to go far enough”.

In a consultation on price transparency launched in September last year, the BSB confirmed a decision taken in February that only direct access barristers would be required to publish information about fees online.

Referring to the BSB’s strategic objective of “high quality and agile regulation”, which included improving its communication with the public, Ms Chambers called on the regulator to “consider how barristers could improve their communication with consumers as well”.

She went on: “From previous engagements with regulators and consumer groups, and from the joint regulators and the panel’s research, and Legal Services Board research, we know that legal services professionals need effective and appropriate interpersonal skills when delivering services to consumers, especially vulnerable ones.

“We would like to encourage the BSB to focus on these skills for barristers during their training for the Bar and the continuing professional development programme.

“Another aspect for the BSB to consider is how to retain the skills in areas where experience is reportedly reducing significantly, such as social welfare law and crime, due in part to reductions in legal aid.”