The major quality marks used in the profession are becoming more credible, but many still have “a long way to go” before consumers can use them with confidence, a new assessment has concluded.
The review by the Legal Services Consumer Panel updates work it initially undertook in 2011 when it found significant shortcomings in the voluntary quality schemes when judged against 10 characteristics it said they should have to satisfy consumers that lawyer members are genuine specialists.
These cover how schemes operate, consumer information and feedback, and how the schemes develop.
The panel tested them against 13 accreditation schemes – eight from the Law Society, the QC appointment system, and those run by the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL), Action against Medical Accidents (AvMA), Resolution, and the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners.
“Overall, the direction of travel is encouraging and there is improvement in each of the 10 assessment areas,” the panel said today. “Two schemes – AvMA and APIL – nearly meet all the criteria in full. However, as a whole, many schemes still have a long way to go to become credible signals of quality.”
The panel’s research found that the most improvement had been made in consumer information, while entry requirements and reaccreditation “continue to be strong areas”.
The weakest area was the schemes’ failure to incorporate consumer feedback in either their design or operation, with the panel reporting that a seminar it hosted found “a noticeable lack of enthusiasm” for this from some of the panel operators.
“Since the schemes are supposed to be marks of excellence which can be clearly identified and used by buyers of legal services, the panel cannot see any justification for failing to collect and analyse consumer feedback in some form. Online review mechanisms are now quite common in self-regulatory schemes in other parts of the economy.”
Other areas of weakness were a lack a lay input in schemes’ governance, unclear or inaccessible complaints processes, ongoing competence checks, and periodic scheme reviews.
The panel also urged scheme operators to consider independent accreditation to help improve consumer trust, and warned them against an over-reliance on using continuing professional development as a means of checking specialist expertise.
The report also expressed surprised by how little research had been undertaken into whether consumers trust or use the various schemes, or whether members find them effective.
Panel chair Elisabeth Davies said: “Quality and specialist expertise continues to be important to consumers when they look for a lawyer, so accreditation schemes could be a real force for good. Yet our report shows they could still achieve much higher standards.
“We’ve been encouraged by improvements made in the past two years, especially in the information which schemes provide to consumers. But this communication needs to be a two-way process – too many schemes still lack lay input in their governance arrangements and are failing to listen to feedback from consumers or investigate complaints about their members.”