The Legal Services Board (LSB) has dropped plans to probe why it is taking women and those from ethnic minorities so long to reach senior roles in the profession.
It also rejected the Law Society’s claim that it is putting too much emphasis on promoting competition at the expense of the other regulatory objectives it is meant to uphold.
The LSB’s draft business plan, published last December, included the LSB’s ambition to explore the reasons underlying the “slow pace of change” on progression in the profession of women and those from minority ethnic communities – to senior roles such as partnerships, the judiciary and QC – and whether there was a role for regulators in helping to address the problem.
Publishing the final version of its business plan this week, and responding to the consultation, the LSB said the Solicitors Regulation Authority, Gender Identity Research and Education Society and Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) supported this work, although CILEx cautioned against the duplication of the significant efforts already underway by others, itself included.
The LSB said: “After considering the availability of resources to complete this work, and noting the work already underway by other organisations, we do not propose to proceed with this work in 2017/18 but will take a keen interest in the findings produced by others.”
In its response to the draft business plan, the Law Society said it has “concerns” that the oversight regulator was “applying undue weight to the objective to promote competition in the provision of services”.
The society said: “It is important not to assume that all change which increases competition will benefit consumers.
“Competition may result in lower prices, but this must be balanced against any risks that result from competitive pressures (eg, reduction in consumer protection or trust in the legal system), which may bring competition into conflict with the public interest: the two not always having the same outcomes and remedies.”
The LSB said it did not agree that it placed undue weight on one objective. “The concerns expressed by [the Law Society] would seem to imply that promotion of competition and consumer protection are mutually exclusive objectives.
“In all of our work, we must consider how best to promote the regulatory objectives. These include objectives to promote the interests of consumers and competition in the provision of services. We pay careful attention to each and weigh them in the balance, alongside all of the other regulatory objectives.”
The LSB also batted away suggestions that, given the current political and economic climate, and changes already affecting the legal sector, it should consider only taking forward those strands of work that are absolutely necessary at this time.
It said: “The LSB is alive to the prevailing social, political and economic climate and this has informed the development of our work programme – all of which is designed to deliver improved outcomes for consumers, the wider public and the legal sector itself.
“As the Competition and Markets Authority market study confirmed, the legal services market is not working as well as it should at present and preserving the status quo is not an option. The prevailing climate increases the need for change that improves outcomes.”
Several responses argued that it was too soon for the LSB to assess the education and training guidance it issued in 2014, as it had planned, given that the Solicitors Regulation Authority and Bar Standards Board were part way through long-term programmes to deliver reform in line with the current guidance.
The LSB said: “After further consideration, we agree with respondents that 2017/18 would not be the right time to review our guidance. The extent of changes proposed by regulators in this area does however reinforce the statutory role the LSB has in relation to the maintenance of standards in this area and so we will be increasing our stakeholder outreach in 2017/18.
“This will help us to maintain and build a rich and broad understanding of developments across education and training so our approach to oversight continues to be fit for purpose and reflects best regulatory practice.”
The final business plan showed that the LSB would this year reduce its cost to the profession to the lowest level since it was established in 2009. There will be a £150,000 reduction on the current year’s budget to £3.85m.
The figure has fallen steadily from the £4.93m levied on the profession in each of its first two years.