The Legal Services Board (LSB) has rejected calls to adopt a policy position on legal aid reform and the impact it might have on access to justice.
The oversight regulator also rebuffed the argument that it should stop pushing for regulatory reform at a time of instability caused by Brexit.
The comments came in the LSB’s response to the consultation on its 2018-21 strategy and 2018-19 business plan.
The Bar Council, Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) and the Law Society all said that the LSB should develop a policy view on changes to legal aid if it was serious about promoting access to justice; the Bar Council warned that the board risked being seen as acting as though it was just another department of government by viewing legal aid as a Ministry of Justice matter.
The LSB responded that unmet legal need was “a key concern for us”, and said it would “continue to use the evidence from our research to highlight where public policy decisions have implications for the regulatory objectives”.
But it added: “However, how government chooses to allocate public money is ultimately a question for it and Parliament, and we are not in a position to understand or comment on the trade-offs involved in allocating tax revenues amongst many different possible areas of spend.”
The Law Society and Bar Council both used the uncertainty caused by EU withdrawal and the Ministry of Justice’s statement that it could not commit to a formal review of legal regulation to contend that the LSB should not take forward its plan in the strategy to continue advocating for such reform.
The LSB said: “We acknowledge that wholesale reform of the legislative framework is not likely to be a priority for government during the period of EU exit.
“Our business plan is based on this assumption and we will continue to seek to maximise the potential of the existing system, not least through the internal governance rules review.
“However, in our status as the oversight regulator in the sector, operating independently of government, we consider that we have a duty to highlight where problems in the legislative framework are hindering delivery of the regulatory objectives.
“Therefore, while no specific projects on legislative reform are planned, we will continue to make the case for any necessary changes as opportunities present themselves.”
The business plan for the coming year included work on improving the LSB’s understanding of the regulatory risks associated with new technology “and how regulators can respond to these without stifling innovation”.
The LSB also anticipated CILEx applying to become an alternative business structure licensing authority in the next 12 months.
The plan indicated that the LSB’s budget has been cut about as far as it can be. The proposed budget for 2018-19 was £3.8m, down slightly from last year and almost 23% since it began work in 2010. It “now needs to be balanced with maintaining effectiveness”.
The three-year strategy has three core objectives: promoting the public interest through ensuring independent, effective and proportionate regulation; making it easier for all consumers to access the services they need and get redress; and increasing innovation, growth and the diversity of services and providers.
Among the measures of success were greater availability of digital comparison tools covering legal services, more consumers shopping around, a narrowing in the spread of prices for the same service, and increasing diversity in the profession.
Dr Helen Phillips, the LSB’s interim chair, said: “[Our] vision is for legal services that everyone can access and trust. This strategy sets out how we will approach achieving this vision over the next three years, taking into account the trends and drivers for change that we envisage will affect the market.
“We intend to pursue our strategic objectives by working in partnership with others to achieve improvement for consumers and the profession – and through our core role of overseeing the performance of regulators.
“In this regard we will evaluate whether there is a need to introduce impact assessments in considering rule change applications to better understand implications for all the interested parties.”