It is far too early to talk about winding down the Legal Services Board (LSB), its chairman has argued, while also criticising the Law Society and Bar Council for their failure to embrace independent regulation quickly enough.
In an on-stage interview at this week’s Legal Futures conference, sponsored by NatWest, David Edmonds said the LSB has a wide range of duties and still has “a huge amount to do”, particularly in terms of embedding independent regulation.
Despite criticism over its role and work from some of the frontline regulators in recent weeks, Mr Edmonds said it is “far too early” to look at changing the current arrangements and that the board’s role should only be reassessed in three or five years’ time.
He said he was not happy with the time, as well as the “emotional, administrative and bureaucratic effort”, it has taken to reach the current position on internal governance at the Law Society and Bar Council.
“I’m not happy that every time there is an issue to do with this regulatory boundary, if you like, there is a pushback. I think there is still a culture across much of the sector with whom we have dealings that pushes back, rather than embraces change and moving on.
“My own belief is absolutely fundamental – if you have properly embedded independent regulation, it’s in the interests of the people who are regulated, as well as in the interests of the wider community and I firmly believe that. And I do think we could have got there at least a year in advance of where we are now.”
While he described himself as “broadly content that the objective that was set for us by the legislation has been as achieved as I would wish it to be at this point in the cycle”, Mr Edmonds said “vigilance is going to be needed for a few more years”.
He was similarly critical of the in-fighting and delays that have beset the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (QASA).
Mr Edmonds strongly countered the suggestion that the LSB should not be an economic regulator. “If we’re not an economic regulator, why on earth did Parliament write in all the stuff in the Act about bringing in alternative business structures? What is that, if not breaking down barriers to entry in a form of economic regulation?”
He also rejected criticisms that the LSB micro-manages the frontline regulators, with areas such as education and training, QASA and diversity often cited. “Quality assurance for advocates – that’s been stuck for 10 years. If we hadn’t managed to get the thing moving, we’d have no hope of a scheme being on board now. Is that micro-management? We’re not devising the scheme. That’s being built by a joint advocacy group of the frontline regulators…
“I’ve actually asked law firms to produce some figures about diversity in their own organisations, which is standard practice across most of the UK economy… It’s not micro-management. It’s sensible pushing forward of those objectives in the legislation.”
In an otherwise characteristically combative performance, Mr Edmonds only turned coy when asked if he agreed with the Legal Ombudsman’s policy of naming lawyers and firms subject to complaints. “I think we need to go on discussing with the ombudsman whether that’s the right solution or not.”
He also acknowledged that the LSB does not currently do enough to fulfil its statutory duty to increase public understanding of citizens’ legal rights, saying it was “incredibly difficult” to find ways of enhancing public legal education.
“Where I think the big change will come is through alternative business structures – with the whole concept of competition, with more effective advertising by solicitors and others of what they can offer and at what price. I think that will be a major stimulus. And I think it will come from the sector, rather than from the regulators.”