Lord Chief Justice highlights concern over focus on consumer interest in legal regulation

Thomas: difficult year

The outgoing Lord Chief Justice today outlined the judiciary’s “nascent concern” that the public interest too often gives way to the consumer interest in legal services regulation.

The comments by Lord Thomas echo those of the incoming president of the Supreme Court, Baroness Hale, who earlier this year said that the Legal Services Board, in its vision for the future shape of legal regulation, “seemed to think it problematic because the independence of the legal profession might be seen to conflict with consumer interests”.

Writing in his ninth and final annual report as Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas said: “There remains, at present, debate about the regulation of legal professionals and the regulation of the legal services market.

“Now, more than ever, it is critical that careful thought is given to any changes and that strong safeguards are put in place when changes are made. Most importantly, the highest standards of training and practice must be encouraged and the practitioner’s overriding duty to the court preserved so as to maintain the world-class reputation of our jurisdiction.

“There is a nascent concern that the public interest too often gives way to the consumer interest, which is itself too narrowly defined.”

Lord Thomas said the judiciary would in future take “a more structured approach” to engaging with the profession’s representative and regulatory bodies “to make sure the constitutional position of the legal profession is properly understood and weighted accordingly as decisions are taken”.

More broadly, having had to tackle issues such as Brexit and its impact on the international standing of English law, as well as judicial independence, access to justice and diversity, the judge said: “My final year in office has, in many ways, been the most difficult.”

Lord Thomas talked with enthusiasm about the “significant progress” made in the “world-leading” £1bn courts and tribunals modernisation programme.

On the criminal front, he said progress was being made with the development of the common platform programme which will link all the paperwork in each stage of a criminal case from arrest by the police and consideration by the CPS to the involvement of the courts and the defence.

As for civil, family and tribunals, he said the major decision made during the year was that the same single process would operate across all three jurisdictions, supported by a single set of new rules designed specifically for the process.

Projects are now building component parts which, when put together, will form the same single process. These include:

  • Social Security and Child Support Tribunal – parties will be able to resolve their disputes online using a digital end-to-end service where parties and judges will be able to view evidence online through a ‘continuous online hearing’. A digital case file will allow users to track and monitor their case and access reliable signposting and guidance. Parties will be able to see the grounds of a dispute and further evidence through digital evidence sharing.
  • Apply for a Divorce – applicants will be able to process an undefended divorce online from their home, with additional features added in time, including payments and uploading documents.
  • Apply for Probate – an online service for people applying for grants of probate.
  • Tax Online Project – this project enables appeals to be lodged with the First-Tier Tax Tribunal online.
  • Civil Money Claims – the online court that will enable parties to resolve money claims online using a largely automated system for claims under £25,000 and streamlined digital pathway for all other civil money claims.

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