Seven of the eight frontline regulators have “confirmed their continued commitment” to the Legal Choices website, despite the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) no longer wanting to run it.
The consumer-facing website helps people to identify their legal needs and navigate the sector, and is managed operationally by the SRA, with decisions made by all the legal regulators – or at least it was until the Bar Standards Board (BSB) controversially pulled its funding last year.
As we reported on Monday, this decision has led to a Legal Services Board (LSB) investigation into the BSB’s governance.
It has also emerged that SRA chief executive Paul Philip wrote to the LSB last month to propose that the oversight regulator take over Legal Choices when the three-year development plan for the site ends in October.
Mr Philip said that, with no agreement at that point on how the £52,500 gap in funding caused by the BSB would be filled, “we are increasingly concerned that the completion of the development programme and the future of the Legal Choices website are now at risk”.
He argued that the collective ownership model was “no longer appropriate for managing a sector-wide, high-profile digital property, which needs to be both responsive and have a clear forward programme of work”.
It should instead be run by an organisation that has “sector-wide reach and the powers to require the co-operation and funding needed to ensure its future, in a way that we, as one of the front-line regulators, do not”. This meant the LSB.
In a follow-up letter, however, the chair of the Legal Choices governance board – Council for Licensed Conveyancers (CLC) chief executive Sheila Kumar – said a meeting of the regulators on 3 April “confirmed their continued commitment to the project and its funding”.
This “very strong consensus” reflected the success of the latest phase of Legal Choices and the impact of its new marketing plan.
She said: “Equally positive has been the value of the site during the current pandemic. Material aimed at helping citizens who are facing difficulties as a result of the coronavirus and the restrictions put in place for its control have seen very high visitor numbers to the site.
“During the six-week pilot phase for the new digital marketing approach over February and March, we saw well over one-third of a million visits to the site.”
The three-year, £750,00 development programme ending in October followed the emphasis put on the importance of Legal Choices by the Competition and Markets Authority’s 2016 report on the legal market.
The SRA was paying the bulk of this: £385,000 or 55%. The BSB, before it pulled out for the last year, spent £94,500. CILEx Regulation and the CLC were each contributing £63,000, with the ICAEW paying £46,000 and the three smaller regulators – the Faculty Office, Costs Lawyers Standards Board and Intellectual Property Regulation Board – each paying £14,000.
Among the coming developments on Legal Choices are four apps – one on dealing with eviction, a legal glossary, a ‘trust my lawyer’ app that shows disciplinary records, and one assisting intermediaries when dealing with people in need.
Last week, the LSB decided against taking over Legal Choices.
Chair Dr Helen Phillips wrote in a blog: “The board agreed that Legal Choices had the potential to become a really powerful resource for consumers and that it was extremely important to continue to develop it, and to keep developing it, as one part of a strategy for connecting legal services to the people who need them.
“However, we considered it hugely important for the reputation of the regulators, individually and collectively, that they continued to take responsibility for delivering against the challenge that they had accepted.
“While we could see some of the rationale for the LSB assuming control, and indeed could see some benefits for the public in doing so, they were outweighed significantly by the consequences of the regulators failing to deliver.”
Instead Ms Phillips said the LSB would offer “additional advice and assistance to help the regulators reach agreement on a revised development plan and budget pitched at the right level of ambition and underpinned by a new and more effective governance model”, which could include an independent chair.
Dr Phillips said the LSB had also agreed to publish a “statutory policy statement and guidance” under the Legal Services Act, to “clearly set out our expectations of regulators” on public legal education to help “drive change and improvement”.
She added that “using statutory tools will reinforce existing oversight mechanisms including the regulatory performance framework and rule change applications”.
This follows a year of work reviewing the current state of public legal education.
A paper before last week’s LSB board meeting said: “”e have come to see PLE as being one among a range of interventions that seeks to reshape legal services to better meet society’s needs.”