The Law Society’s bid to regain powers  from the Solicitors Regulation Authority is “quite staggering”, the chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel has said – and it has stiffened her resolve to oppose any return to self-regulation.
Elisabeth Davies criticised the society – which also called for the panel to be abolished – for “the lack of argument or evidence… to support its blueprint for change”.
She said: “Without any apparent sense of irony, it asks to be trusted to regulate in the public interest yet proposes the very solution that would most advance its own self-interest.”
Ms Davies highlighted research commissioned by the Legal Services Board that showed “even policies modestly weighted towards professional self-interest can cause major harm for consumers”.
This has been reinforced, she said, by the panel’s thus far unsuccessful fight to open up the professional registers to enable the growth of comparison websites, which she said goes against a direct recommendation by the LSB and the government’s open data strategy.
Comparison sites need the raw data that the Law Society holds on all solicitors – such as their contact details and membership of accreditation schemes – but the Law Society has rejected requests for this, while applications made under its freedom of information code have also been unsuccessful.
“The most recent adjudication, which is publicly available, shows the true reason,” Ms Davies said. “After initial objections about the data already being available and the expense of providing the dataset were ruled unfounded, the society was left to rely on the section of the code which allows it to withhold information where disclosure could harm its commercial interests.
“Since, it argued, the data requested was clearly commercially exploitable, it was within the society’s rights to withhold it. Although on this occasion the Law Society eventually released the limited ‘count data’ the applicant had sought, in laying down a marker for future cases, the adjudicator concluded that ‘the society is entitled jealously to protect its right to withhold information which could reasonably be argued to damage its commercial interests’.”
Ms Davies said that this episode – “and there have been others” – shows why there cannot be a return to self-regulation.
“Reading the Law Society’s submission has only stiffened my resolve on this point. Sir David Clementi concluded that self-regulation would no longer command public confidence. Indeed, time has shown that his halfway house model did not go far enough to deliver regulation which is truly independent of the profession.
“A duty on professional bodies to listen to consumer views offers scant assurance, as experience suggests these will be ignored should they conflict with lawyers’ interests. If consumers are truly to be put at the heart of legal services regulation, regulatory decisions need to be made by organisations that truly have consumers at their heart.”