Exclusive: CMA ramps up pressure on Bar Standards Board

CMA: Shares concerns over BSB decision

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has ramped up the pressure on the Bar Standards Board (BSB) over its decision to stop funding the cross-regulator Legal Choices website.

A spokeswoman told Legal Futures that the CMA has “strongly encouraged” the BSB to reconsider its position.

As well as impacting on all the other regulators by increasing the amount they have to contribute to the development of the site, it could also affect the authority’s review next year of the progress made on implementing the recommendations it made three years ago on helping consumers navigate the legal market.

Legal Choices is the consumer-facing website helping consumers to identify their legal needs and navigate the sector. Set up in 2012, until now it has been collectively run and paid for by all the legal regulators.

Enhancing Legal Choices was an important recommendation made by CMA in its report, and it is now in the final year of a three-year, £750,000 development programme to achieve this.

However, as we revealed last month, the BSB stopped its contribution from 1 November, saying it could best offer the public information about how to get legal help from barristers via its own website, which was relaunched last month.

A CMA spokeswoman told Legal Futures: “The CMA shares concerns expressed about the Bar Standards Board’s decision to withdraw funding from the development of the Legal Choices website.

“We have strongly encouraged them to reconsider, given the importance of developing Legal Choices as a single source of information to help people understand where they can get legal advice.

“This follows our market study identifying there was not enough information available on price, quality and service to help those needing legal support. We will continue to engage with the Bar Standards Board as we further consider the implications of their decision to withdraw funding will be.”

The CMA plans to review next year what steps legal regulators have taken to make it easier for people to understand what legal help they really need and improve competition. This will include assessing the progress made by the regulators in developing and promoting Legal Choices – the BSB’s withdrawal of funding is likely to be a relevant factor to take into account.

The BSB had no comment

Meanwhile, the Legal Services Board (LSB) has released a letter sent to the BSB about the decision, expressing its “significant concern” that the BSB has “decided to maintain its position to withdraw funding from the Legal Choices website despite the efforts of various organisations to help find a constructive solution”.

New chief executive Matthew Hill said the oversight regulator saw providing consumers with good-quality information about legal services as “a key element of improving access to justice”, while a “demonstrable commitment” to this objective by legal services regulators was “a key element of their performance”.

He continued: “We have little option but to regard BSB’s decision to withdraw funding from Legal Choices as a diminution of its commitment, and therefore performance, in this area.

“I should add that in the context of the LSB’s responsibility for monitoring the CMA’s 2016 recommendations, the BSB’s action is likely to absent it from the positive assessment we would like to make of the sector’s overall progress.”

Mr Hill said the rationale behind the BSB’s views of the effectiveness and value for money of Legal Choices was “unconvincing without a clear commitment to investing in alternatives”.

Adding to the comments made by LSB chair Dr Helen Philips that we reported yesterday, he said: “Our focus will now turn to the substitutes that the BSB puts in place to deliver on the underlying objective, including the ongoing financial commitment underpinning these.

“While the redesign of the BSB’s own website may make a helpful contribution, on its own it seems unlikely to make a significant difference.” He requested sight of the BSB’s plans and funding.

He concluded: “I should let you know that we do not agree with BSB’s position that, because services are delivered primarily through other providers, it has a limited role in providing good-quality information to the public.

“Clearly, it is important not to miss the opportunity to expand public access work. However, we also see barristers as being part of an important value chain delivering services to an end user, whether that is an individual, a business or other organisation.

“We consider it important for regulators and those whom they regulate to see that value chain primarily from the point of view of that end user and not that of the profession being regulated.”

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