The Legal Services Consumer Panel is ready to tell the government some “uncomfortable truths” about legal aid, its new chair has said.
In her first interview since taking on the post – the first part of which we published yesterday – Sarah Chambers said that legal aid was a “priority” for her tenure.
The panel’s annual tracker survey, published last month, found that just 2% of those surveyed received funding from legal aid, a new low and down from 5% in 2017.
With over 60% of consumers saying that legal advice was not affordable to the general public, the panel said it was clear “that those with limited means are finding it ever harder to secure access to justice, with funding from free services also showing a decline”.
Ms Chambers says legal aid is not the only issue around access to justice. “There is unequal access to justice depending on who you are, what stage of your life you are, what position you’re in. I think it’s very much our job to focus on the consumers who have not much of a voice and are least able to help themselves.”
But how far is the panel prepared to go? The Legal Services Board has always been reluctant to go near government policy on legal aid – despite the urging of the Law Society, Bar Council and others – but recently issued a response to the Ministry of Justice’s LASPO review that used the evidence from its research “to highlight where public policy decisions have implications for the regulatory objectives”.
Ms Chambers says the panel has a little more freedom. She explains: “We always start from ‘let’s provide the evidence and let the evidence speak for itself’.
“The evidence shows that legal aid is reducing and the tracker survey shows that a lot of people who have had a problem don’t get it addressed because they can’t find a way to do it…
“We’ll never say things like ‘you should increase the legal aid budget by £xm’ because that’s not our job, that’s for somebody else to do. But we will point out what might sometimes be inconvenient facts.
“We don’t mind making them feel a little bit uncomfortable but I think perhaps the role of the consumer panel is a bit more flexible in that regard than the Legal Services Board, which as a regulator has to stand back.”
After all, improving access to justice is one of the regulatory objectives laid out in the Legal Services Act 2007. “I think we can be slightly freer to say quite a lot of uncomfortable truths if that’s where the evidence points, and I expect that’s what we’ll be doing in the coming years,” says Ms Chambers.
Linked to this is the panel’s intention to ensure “an appropriate regulatory response to technological innovation and development” and to make sure that it does not go further than it needs to given technology’s potential to make legal services “more effective, cheaper and better quality”.
One regulatory move the panel has long been concerned about is the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s plan to allow practising solicitors to give advice to the public from unregulated businesses.
The problem, Ms Chambers says, is that the system is “in danger of becoming so complex that a user of a particular provider might not know if they’re protected or not, how much they’re regulated, and probably not understand why their protection is greater here than there, particularly if it’s the same service”.
She says that the panel wants to encourage new and flexible ways of providing legal services – and is not against the idea of unregulated providers as such – “but where consumers are using people they think are solicitors or are regulated, they need to have the information”.
“We will be having a debate with the Legal Services Board [which is now considering the SRA’s proposed new rulebook],” she continues.
“We are concerned about some aspects of the proposals were hugely weighted against the consumer, hugely increasing the risk to the consumer who wasn’t going to know what risk they were taking, with virtually no benefit on the other side of the coin.”