The Legal Services Consumer Panel could be a surprise victim of the government’s so-called bonfire of the quangos and be merged into Citizens Advice, it has emerged.
The panel’s chairwoman, Dianne Hayter, has hit out at the move, saying Citizens Advice would not be able to replicate the role of the panel during a “critical period” in the development of legal regulation as the introduction of alternative business structures (ABSs) nears.
The government has carried out a “review of the landscape of consumer protection bodies”, and will publish a consultation early next year with proposals to streamline and transfer the functions of Consumer Focus, and other consumer bodies – including the panel – to the Citizens Advice service. Most consumer enforcement will pass to local authority trading standards.
Business Secretary Vince Cable said: “Consumers are represented by a bewildering array of public, private and voluntary bodies, which often duplicate efforts to inform, educate and advise consumers of their rights. Our aim is to create a simpler structure with a single competition authority and a stronger role for front-line consumer services.”
Dr Hayter, who was elevated to the House of Lords in this summer as a Labour peer, said the panel was working through the implications of the “surprise announcement”.
She continued: “The panel performs a very different function to campaigning organisations such as Citizens Advice, as we provide independent advice to the Legal Services Board at the earliest stages of its policy thinking on the regulation of lawyers. It does this at no cost to the public purse as its activities are funded by a levy on the legal profession. We are in a critical period in the legal services reforms in the run-up to ABSs, so having a strong discrete voice for legal clients matters more than ever.
“Citizens Advice will not be able to reach out, or be accountable, to such clients – which includes business as well as individuals – on matters of regulation, nor have the means to scrutinise the work undertaken by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, Bar Standards Board, or the new Legal Ombudsman – all of which the panel now does. The panel’s advice to the Legal Services Board on the issue of referral fees was clearly crucial in their subsequent consultation. Without a panel representative of the interests of users of legal services, it is unclear where such input could arise.”
Dr Hayter said the panel was pleased that no firm decisions on consumer panels have yet been made and looked forward “to explaining its role during the consultation process”. She said the panel has requested “an early meeting” with the Ministry of Justice to discuss this process.
Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “We are delighted that the Secretary of State has expressed his confidence in Citizens Advice… We warmly welcome the proposal that in future the Citizens Advice service should have the lead responsibility for the non-financial consumer education, information and advice.”