The Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP) has escaped the government’s consolidation of consumer advocacy and information into Citizens Advice – for now, the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has confirmed.
The move was strongly opposed by the Legal Services Board (LSB) – to which the panel is attached – when it was first mooted. However, the Law Society has suggested it should still be the way forward for the panel.
Following consultation, BIS announced this week that Citizens Advice is taking on responsibilities and resources from the Office for Fair Trading and Consumer Focus, while trading standards work will be beefed up by a new National Trading Standards Board.
As well as now providing a new consumer advice helpline, replacing Consumer Direct, Citizens Advice will from next April represent consumers’ interests in unregulated sectors.
This will leave a new, technical Regulated Industries Unit working with the energy and postal services sectors and their regulators. This will be created by April 2013 and then transferred to Citizens Advice during 2014.
A BIS spokesman said it will be for the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to decide whether the LSCP’s work should be covered by the new arrangements in future.
LSCP chairwoman Elisabeth Davies said: “We welcome the clarity this decision provides both for the consumer landscape and for the panel’s future, and look forward to working ever more closely with our partner consumer bodies.
“Creating a single home for consumer information and advice is a positive move, which could contribute to helping people to choose and use lawyers more effectively.”
Consumer affairs minister Norman Lamb said: “For too long people have been faced with an array of different bodies for advice and support, but it’s not always clear who to turn to first. The Citizens Advice service will become the publicly funded voice of consumers, championing their needs and empowering them to make the right choices for themselves.”
The LSCP is included in the MoJ’s current triennial review of the LSB, and feedback from some of those who have responded to the ministry’s call for evidence has been mixed, with complaints that the panel has not done enough to help regulators develop their own consumer engagement strategies.
The Law Society went further, saying “it may well make sense” to include the panel in BIS’s new arrangements. While it supported consumer involvement in the regulation of legal services, “the Law Society does not consider the existence of an additional consumer panel, as part of the Legal Services Board arrangements, is necessary”.
The Bar Standards Board, supported by the Bar Council, said: “There is perhaps not an immediate need to abolish the consumer panel but the next triennial review should be examining carefully the amount of value added to the overall regulation of legal services. If considerably more is not evident, then it should not continue.”
In its own response to the triennial review, the LSB said “it is probable that the Board would seek to appoint a panel with a similar role and function to the current body were a decision made to remove its statutory status”.
This was because of issues such as the “relative inability of national consumer bodies to engage with the legal services agenda on an ongoing basis in the light of their other priorities”, the failure to date of any of the approved regulators to maintain and sustain their own arrangements to ensure independent consumer input into their activities, and the quality of work produced by the panel “at significantly less cost than would have been involved in its external commissioning”.