The Legal Services Board (LSB) has launched a call for evidence on continuing competence, the first stage in a promised review of the issue that could lead to periodic checks on lawyers’ fitness to practise.
The LSB said that, unlike other professional services such as healthcare and teaching, there was “no regular, formal assessment” of lawyers during their careers beyond requirements for continuing professional development.
“Recent reforms to education and training have largely focused on assuring day one competence but regulators should also ensure that legal professionals remain competent throughout their careers.”
The LSB said consumers could usually observe ‘service quality’ – such as promptness, courtesy and administrative efficiency – but they were often “not able to assess the technical quality of work”, meaning they relied on checks being in place.
The LSB said it would consider “whether this status quo is sustainable and if the current approach is effective in protecting consumers’ and the public interest.”
It emerged in June last year that the LSB would be launching a review of continuing competence, including the possibility of formal periodic reaccreditation for lawyers.
The LSB heard calls for regulators to take a more “hands-on” approach to ongoing competence at a roundtable event held at Northumbria University in October.
In its call for evidence on what it is calling ongoing competence, the LSB said research by the Legal Services Consumer Panel had shown that consumers found it difficult to assess competence.
“Consumers generally assume that legal professionals are competent and rely on there being regular, robust checks in place to assure this.
“This is consistent with consumers’ expectations of competence assurance for professionals in other sectors.”
The LSB said “regular revalidation” for doctors, nurses and midwives involved collecting information “that supports an individual to confirm they remain fit to practise, such as a record of practising hours, CPD completion, written and verbal reflective accounts, and feedback from peers and patients”.
Teachers were subject to regular observation from Ofsted, including classroom inspections and an opportunity for Ofsted to “meet with learners”. Ofsted inspections determined the frequency and extent to which schools would be re-inspected in the future.
The LSB said: “As well as healthcare and education, we have begun researching approaches to competence assurance in other sectors such as aviation, financial services, armed forces and engineering.”
In the call for evidence, the oversight regulator said there was no “single, shared definition of competence” for legal professionals and it was interested to find out what “common areas there may be for demonstrating competence across all legal professions”.
The LSB said “some competence assurance methods” had been adopted within the profession. This included use by the Crown Prosecution Service of its own process for courtroom observation and assessment of advocates and the Legal Aid Agency’s audits.
“The LSB has previously been involved in work on the development of competence assurance frameworks.
“This includes work between 2011-2014 to develop the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates to introduce competence assessments, which for a combination of reasons, was never implemented.”
It said research by the Solicitors Regulation Authority and Bar Standards Board had found that concerns about the quality of advocacy remained.
Matthew Hill, chief executive of the LSB, commented: “We know that consumers assume legal professionals are required to demonstrate competence throughout their careers. In reality, once qualified, there are few formal checks on competence.
“We want to understand and build consensus around what works well in supporting legal professionals to demonstrate competence throughout their careers and explore whether existing frameworks meet public expectations and protect people from harm.
“‘Ensuring legal professionals remain competent throughout their careers will help increase trust in legal services and improve access to justice.”
The call for evidence closes on 15 May.