The Legal Services Consumer Panel has had to make “difficult judgement calls” in balancing the competing needs for increased access to services with consumer protection, the panel’s chair, Elisabeth Davies, has admitted.
Introducing the panel’s strategy for the next three years, she said the Legal Services Act reforms could not be judged a success until real progress had been made in tackling the “core challenge” of unmet legal need.
“Sometimes our solutions won’t be popular but they will always be about putting the consumer first – reflecting the title of the white paper that underpinned the Legal Services Act reforms,” Ms Davies said.
“We won’t judge the reforms a success until real and genuine headway has been made in addressing the core challenge of reducing unmet legal need.
“While things are gradually getting better, consumers are still not using their purchasing power to make the market work in their interests as they do in other sectors. And many lack the confidence to complain about poor service when things go wrong – as a result providers can be slow to learn and improve.”
In the strategy document, which included its work programme for the next financial year, the panel cited as its top aim the need to extend access to justice for “those who cannot obtain the services they need to resolve legal problems or are poorly served by the market”.
The panel said that often consumer needs would be served by using a lawyer, but alternatives should be considered – such as carrying out simpler legal tasks themselves or becoming a litigant a person (described by the panel as “self-lawyering”) or using a an unregulated provider.
On improving the regulatory and complaints systems for legal services, its second strategic aim, the panel said regulators should be “equipped to deal with the commercial practices and digital detriments that are likely to be a feature of the modern market”.
The panel said it would seek funding with Queen Margaret University’s Consumer Insight Centre for a study on good practice by redress schemes in using complaints data to raise standards.
The panel said it would also be conducting joint research with the Legal Ombudsman on perceptions of the fairness of its decisions.
In a further move, the panel said it would seek funding for research on the accuracy of legal information websites in relation to ‘jagged edge’ issues, where there were differences in law between England and Wales.
The panel linked this to its third strategic aim, making sure consumers had the information they needed to choose and use legal services effectively.
To ensure unregulated providers raised standards and offered access to redress, its fourth strategic aim, the panel promised to “continue to push the Legal Ombudsman to establish a voluntary scheme without further delay” – strongly opposed by the Law Society, among others.
On its final aim, to secure legislative reforms, the panel said the combined cost of the regulatory bodies and the Legal Ombudsman was almost £90m, although “only six narrowly defined legal activities” actually required regulation.
“The LSB (Legal Services Board) has been working with the other legal services regulators to develop options for reform with the possibility that there will be greater appetite for legislative change in the next parliament.
“In the meantime, there is a pressing need for initiatives to reduce duplication, inconsistency and waste within the current arrangements.”