The Legal Services Board (LSB) has said it expects to see “a sense of pace and urgency” from regulators in improving the flow of information to consumers to help them choose a lawyer.
Publishing the final version of a statutory policy statement on empowering consumers, the LSB said its requirements “may potentially result in an increased burden” on legal services providers but regulators had “flexibility” in how they applied it.
The final version of the statement makes only one significant change in the information required compared to the draft published in September; the Solicitors Regulation Authority, the Bar Council and others opposed the inclusion in the statement of an expectation that consumers would be provided with details of a law firm’s professional indemnity insurance cover, and this was dropped.
Responding to the consultation on the draft, the LSB said regulators were expected to provide consumers with information on disciplinary records and sanctions, together with published decisions by the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) “as a minimum”.
The LSB said consumers “should be able to find all the relevant information easily about a provider in one place.”, which could be achieved by regulators adding information from LeO to existing registers.
In terms of further information on quality, regulators are expected to “have regard to” performance data such as success rates and complaints data, as well as customer feedback, ratings and reviews.
On price transparency, they are expected to ensure providers produce “useful information” to enable effective consumer choice, including information about ranges of costs for different stages of cases and disbursements.
The LSB said that, although there had been “some creditable progress” on empowering consumers in recent years, the challenges identified by the Competition & Markets Authority in its 2016 report remained, with “too many consumers” unable to identify the right legal services.
“Therefore, we expect to see a sense of pace and urgency in the regulators’ activities following publication of the statement.”
The LSB added to the statement a principle encouraging regulators to test transparency measures with consumers, as suggested by the Legal Services Consumer Panel and the Law Society.
The Law Society, the Bar Council and the Costs Lawyer Standards Board said they were concerned about the impact of consumer information requirements on small firms and sole practitioners, where ethnic minority lawyers were over-represented.
The LSB said it recognised the concerns but the policy statement provided “a high-level and flexible framework”, which would allow regulators to take alternative approaches.
“We do not consider the expectations and principles set out in the statement of policy will inherently result in negative impacts on groups with protected characteristics.”
Dr Helen Phillips, chair of the LSB, commented: “Too many people and businesses don’t get access to the legal help that would give them better outcomes to their problems.
“Often that’s because they don’t have the information that would give them the confidence to get that help.”
I Stephanie Boyce, president of the Law Society, said: “In principle, setting expectations around a base level of transparency on price, quality and service could help to deliver more information for clients.”
However, it was “disappointing the LSB said it doesn’t expect the principles will generally have a negative impact on groups with protected characteristics”.
In a separate development, the LSB launched a consultation this week on a new version of the performance framework it uses to assess the progress of regulators.
The LSB said the new framework put “greater emphasis on leadership, delivering the regulatory objectives and running effective operations”.
Setting out the LSB’s expectations more clearly than before, it provided “much greater freedom to regulators to decide how best to meet those expectations”.