The frontline regulators may be forced to fund the Legal Choices website if it is to reach its potential to become a “flagship consumer resource”, the Legal Services Board (LSB) has hinted.
The oversight regulator said “the reluctance of some regulators to put their full weight behind Legal Choices under the current voluntary arrangements creates a drag on the ambition of those who are doing so”.
It seemed likely that only “fundamental changes in the way that the initiative is supported, governed and funded will improve prospects for success”, the LSB continued, in its submission to the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) review of implementation of its 2016 report on competition in the legal market.
The CMA report backed the development of Legal Choices, which is a cross-regulator initiative aimed at helping consumers navigate the market. It has cost the regulators £250,000 for each of the past three years and is managed by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).
However, its progress was hit by the Bar Standards Board’s controversial decision to pull its funding from the project last year and undertake its own public awareness project. This has triggered a recently commenced LSB review into the board’s decision-making.
The LSB told the CMA: “Too many people and businesses are not engaging with legal services when it could really help them. There are likely to be many reasons for this including cost (or perceptions of cost) and service design.
“For many consumers, however, it will be simple lack of knowledge about how the legal system works and who they can approach when they need help. This is where a facility such as Legal Choices, properly funded and supported across the sector, has a critical role to play…
“We see Legal Choices, with the necessary support in place, as having the potential to become a flagship consumer resource.”
Plans for it include a unified register of disciplinary records.
But the LSB said that achieving the full potential of Legal Choices “has been inhibited by a persistent lack of consensus among the legal services regulators over funding and governance”.
It continued: “It is hard to avoid the conclusion that – for some regulators at least – the importance of contributing funds toward high-quality, sector-wide consumer information may be considered an undue burden on their fee-payers.
“While this is of course in itself a source of significant concern to the LSB, our view is that the lack of consensus has diverted energy and resource from making Legal Choices work better for consumers.”
Papers before last month’s LSB board meeting show that funding for only the first year of the next three-year programme of Legal Choices – starting this month – has been agreed.
The LSB said: “The BSB’s decision prompted some of the other regulators to reconsider their own participation, with the result that Legal Choices is now effectively limping into its next three-year programme of development. We consider this position to be highly unsatisfactory…
“This puts its “long-term future in some doubt… It seems unrealistic to expect that voluntary collaboration between the frontline regulators at the current level of ambition is a sustainable method for maintaining and developing the Legal Choices website.
“In the absence of a fundamental shift of position on the part of some regulators, the long-term survival – let alone development – of Legal Choices will require a new model.”
In a letter in August to Sheila Kumar, chief executive of the Council for Licensed Conveyancers and chair of the Legal Choices governance board, LSB chief executive Matthew Hill warned that, should regulatory bodies choose not be part of Legal Choices, it expected them to have put alternative arrangements in place to deliver on the same objectives of the website.
“Furthermore, given the scale of the latent value most regulators are likely to be deriving from their contribution – based largely on exploiting the substantial economies of scale that partnering with the SRA offers – our starting assumption would be that the cost to regulatory bodies of putting in place effective alternatives will exceed their contributions to the Legal Choices platform.”
He also urged the regulators to agree funding for the full three years: “A constant cycle of negotiations on a year-by-year basis would be unsettling and distract from other priorities.”
In a letter to Mr Hill, SRA chief executive Paul Philip said “agreement to a full three-year funding model is necessary to allow the detailed planning and development that is required”.
In a statement, Ms Kumar said: “The frontline legal regulators involved in the Legal Choices website believe that the site is central to delivering public legal education for consumers and that it provides the most effective one-stop shop for citizens at a point of need.
“Funding from all the partner legal regulators (all the regulators except for the BSB) has now been agreed for the first year of the next three year development programme, with the funding for the balance of the programme agreed by most regulators and further discussion taking place.”