The Legal Services Consumer Panel has criticised legal regulators’ continuing “resistance” to publishing complaints data about the lawyers they oversee.
It has also warned the Bar Standards Board (BSB) that it will not drop its concerns about the limited price transparency requirements it has imposed on barristers, and plans to draw them to the attention of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).
The panel has been a prime mover behind the transparency agenda that resulted in the CMA’s recommendations in 2016 and then new rules introduced by several regulators, starting with the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and Council for Licensed Conveyancers last December.
In its newly published annual report, the panel said the legal sector “has moved in the right direction with regards to price transparency, but it is disappointing to see very little reference made in any of the [regulators’] consultation documents (responding to the CMA report) to the development of quality indicators.
“Our disappointment is compounded by the regulators’ resistance to the publication of complaints data. We remain concerned that this area has not been given sufficient consideration.”
The panel said complaints data was “one indicator of quality” and reported on a roundtable on the issue that it held during the year.
“At the roundtable, we learnt that useful insight reports have been developed from complaints data in other sectors, and that this has been used to raise standards across respective sectors.
“We also learnt that in the telecoms sector, the high-profile nature of the publication of complaints data has provided an incentive for senior executives to engage with the data, understand it and improve services, as well as providing useful information for consumers.
“Other regulators have also used the intelligence from complaints data to assess and target market risks.”
But the panel said that, apart from the SRA, which is publishing aggregate complaints data, and the Legal Ombudsman, which is scoping a piece of work on publishing its decisions in full, “we have seen little movement from other approved regulators”.
It pledged to continue working to ensure the CMA’s recommendations were “implemented effectively”, and to host a roundtable event on how to collate quality indicators in a meaningful way.
Last week, an SRA report showed that the proportion of complaints about poor service successfully resolved in-house by law firms without reference to the Legal Ombudsman has topped 80% for the first time.
On the BSB, the panel said it was unhappy that the price transparency plans rules were restricted to public access barristers in the areas of immigration and family, as well as to chambers with 10 or more practising barristers.
“[We] maintain that the BSB’s approach to price transparency does not give due consideration to the reality of consumer behaviour in a complex markets such as legal services. It presumes that consumers have the confidence, know-how, time and desire to contact multiple providers for pricing information.
“The Legal Services Board is aware of the concerns the panel has raised about how some transparency measures have been implemented. Ultimately, we will raise this with the CMA in 2020 when it returns to assess how its recommendations have been implemented.”
The report also called for the regulators to include more information about unregulated providers on the consumer-facing Legal Choices website that they collectively run.
“We note some resistance as regulators would prefer to keep the site’s focus on providers who contribute to the levy that funds the site, rather than those in the unregulated sector.
“However… the panel takes a whole market view of the consumer experience and journey. We are also of the firm view that the provision of neutral information about the unregulated sector contributes to informed decision making, improved competition and better consumer protection…
“For Legal Choices to be successful, it must anticipate and guide consumers through the complex maze of the legal services sector and this must include the provision of pertinent and evolving information about the unregulated market.”