Legal regulators have reacted coolly to the recommendation of Professor Stephen Mayson that they be replaced by a single organisation, arguing instead the case for specialism.
The Law Society pushed back on the whole report aggressively, but there was support from the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx), especially for the idea of activity based regulation.
Professor Mayson’s independent report argued that all providers of legal services, whether legally qualified or not, should be registered and regulated by a single regulator, but to differing degrees depending on the risk to the public interest of the work.
Amanda Pinto QC, chair of the Bar Council, said that, in a market made up of specialist professionals, “specialist regulators focused on each part of the overall system is surely of more benefit to society than an uber regulator that comes at a higher financial cost to the public making access to lawyers more expensive for those needing their services”.
She continued: “It is in no one’s interests to encourage a rush to the lowest common denominator when, at the moment, lawyers are regulated to high standards.”
A spokesman for the Bar Standards Board added: “The work of barristers is central to the operation of the justice system and the rule of law. As such, the public interest requires that barristers continue to be regulated robustly by a regulator with the necessary specialist expertise.
“We agree with Professor Mayson in principle that there should be greater protections for consumers in relation to the currently unregulated sector.”
Sheila Kumar, chief executive of the Council for Licensed Conveyancers (CLC), backed the importance of having regulation “commensurate with risk” and flexible enough to deal with fast-moving changes such as those associated with the development of lawtech.
She said: “Furthermore, any future model for regulation will need to ensure it maintains the benefits of the specialist regulatory approach provided by the CLC, which allows a focus on the particular risks in conveyancing and probate, delivering consumer protection through a tailored regulatory framework.
“Stretching a single regulatory framework across the full range of legal services is not an obvious solution to the needs of a dynamic legal sector.
“Our approach to having different levels of qualification, cited in the report, shows the benefit of a diversity of approaches by different regulators so allowing innovative solutions to develop.”
Professor Chris Bones, the chair of CILEx, said the organisation “rejects the narrow sectional interest that has stood in the way of badly needed changes to the regulation of legal practitioners”.
He explained: “The measures included in this report that will protect consumers, open the market further to full competition and ensure that legal services as an industry remains a competitive sector for the UK, are all welcomed by CILEx and by CILEx lawyers.
“Activity based regulation is a reform that is long-overdue and CILEx is already pursuing this. If you want your teeth seen to, you don’t visit a GP. Yet in legal services this generalist approach is still the basic building block of representation: at times to the detriment of consumers.”
Professor Bones said the report was also right to call out the “unsustainable position” of having organisations that both regulate and represent their parts of the profession.
“The current separation of functions does not go far enough and CILEx has consistently advocated a greater degree of regulatory independence than currently permitted by law. I hope his recommendations spark action on this front sooner rather than later.”
The Law Society insisted that recovery in the wake of Covid-19 was more important, with law firms needing more support, “not the added burdens of a regulatory upheaval and uncertainty”.
President Simon Davis said: “The immediate focus of policy makers should be thinking about how to make better use of the current regulatory framework, deliver effective public legal education, resource legal aid properly and ensure the survival of the vulnerable parts of legal services that do so much to support people in difficult circumstances and to underpin a whole range of transactions, business and personal.”
He also pushed back against the idea of regulating legal technology that delivers legal services, saying this could “stifle innovation and affect the sector’s competitiveness internationally”.
Also positive was Claire Green, chair of the Association of Costs Lawyers. She said: “Professor Mayson’s recommendations that costs work should be the preserve of properly trained and regulated costs professionals accurately identifies the shortcomings of the current system.
“He notes how errors from ‘dabblers’, including solicitors, can lead to significant and avoidable shortfalls in costs recovery, to the detriment of lay clients.
“He is right to describe this as an increasingly complex and specialised area of law that requires expert handling, and says that only individually authorised costs lawyers should be able to conduct costs litigation and advocacy. We also strongly welcome his call to protect all legal professional titles, including that of costs lawyer.
“There is much to digest in his report about the overall structure of legal regulation, and it will hopefully form a major stepping stone to a regime where those needing advice on costs receive it from those who have demonstrated their expertise and have proper consumer protections in place.”
The Solicitors Regulation Authority issued a cautious response. A spokesman said: “Our priority is to work within the current framework to maintain trust in high professional standards while supporting access to justice, which is all the more important in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Having introduced a significant programme of regulatory reform, we want to assess and evaluate progress – the UCL report will feed into our consideration of what more we may need to do.”
Legal Services Board chief executive Matthew Hill described the report as a “thoughtful analysis of a complex set of issues”.
He said: “As Professor Mayson recognises, Covid-19 is having a significant impact on consumers, businesses and society and the legal sector is likely to look very different in the months and years ahead.
“This only increases the need for regulation to adapt at pace to ensure people who need legal help and advice can access services they trust and have confidence in, both today and in future.
“We are developing a new strategy for legal services regulation and this could include considering alternative regulatory models.
“Central to our thinking is a commitment to a strategic reshaping of legal services to better meet the needs of consumers and benefit everyone in society – and we will pursue this with or without legislative reform.”
As we reported earlier this week, the board has begun a project to look at what reform it could achieve by using its existing powers under the Legal Services Act 2007.