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Spend, spend, spend – Bar Council criticises LSB budget and accuses it of “mission-creep”


McGowan: oversight regulator does not appear to feel budgetary pressures

The Bar Council has renewed its assault on the Legal Services Board (LSB) by questioning its decision to spend thousands on academic research into the cab rank rule and intervening in the Prudential case – which it said was proof of “mission creep”.

In a response to the LSB’s draft business plan 2013-14 [2], the council praised the board for its achievements, although in the context of already having completed “much that it was set up to do”. It criticised as a “serious omission” the plan’s near-silence on the predicament of publicly funded lawyers.

Using figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the Bar Council said it had “serious reservations” that £21,367 was spent on the recent LSB-funded research [3] into the cab rank rule, which it said was “of questionable quality” and which the board had confirmed would not be taken further.

In its business plan response, the council said that if the point was to better inform itself about the rule, it should have accessed “the wealth of knowledge, expertise and material at the Bar Standards Board, as frontline regulator” before “incurring new costs which have led nowhere”.

It also cited the £1,856.25 plus VAT it said was spent by the LSB preparing submissions to the Supreme Court hearing of the Prudential [4]case as evidence of “mission creep”, while underlining that in addition to this figure, the cost of LSB staff time had to be added.

Further, it said it would be “very concerned” if future external research into public access to the Bar – flagged by the LSB in its draft business plan – “had the effect of delaying” rule changes in public access which are awaiting the board’s approval. It queried the value for money of other potential LSB research projects.

The barristers also highlighted the “growth in the LSB’s costs and the steady growth in its regulatory ambition” between 2006-12 and said that while the incomes of many barristers were falling, “the LSB needs regularly to take proper account of the affordability of regulation, the cost of which falls directly onto the profession”.

The LSB is proposing that its £4.5m budget will be trimmed by £50,000, while also absorbing inflation increases.

The draft plan’s failure to “contextualise its plans with any reference to the plight of legal practitioners in the publicly funded environment”, beyond general remarks, was a “serious omission”, said the council. “We shall be looking for evidence which demonstrates the LSB’s sensitivity to the economic challenges which many practitioners… currently face.”

In a comment that could be taken both to praise the LSB’s performance and to signify that its work is complete, the council commended the LSB “for much of what it has achieved since it was established”, namely in streamlining the regulatory maze, unifying complaints handling, and establishing alternative business structures.

Chairman of the Bar Maura McGowan said there was no question that proper regulation was important, but while government departments were cutting spending, “the oversight regulator does not appear to feel the same pressures”. She added: “We must seek to ensure that the profession is not unnecessarily burdened by the weight and cost of regulation.”

She said the LSB should “focus on its core duties of regulatory supervision and avoid mission creep and duplication” of work being done by frontline regulators.

An LSB spokesman offered no comment, except to say that “the cab-rank research was procured through an open competitive tender”.

Professor John Flood of the University of Westminster, who co-wrote the cab-rank report, told Legal Futures: “The research was carried out using standard research protocols and both the Bar Council and the BSB contributed to it…. We stand by the quality of the research and we are ready to engage with the Bar any time on the substantive issues.”