Panel to launch "annual health check" on success of legal services reforms

Hayter: the time is right to assess the early impact of these major reforms

A groundbreaking assessment of the progress in delivering the legal services reforms from a consumer perspective is the centrepiece of the Legal Services Consumer Panel’s plan for the forthcoming year, delegates at today’s Legal Futures Conference will hear. 

The panel’s second work programme, for 2011/12, also floats the idea of a “single regulatory badge” to help consumers overcome confusion between different providers of legal services, and good practice standards for legal comparison websites 

Launching the plan at the conference, panel chairwoman Dr Diane Hayter will say that almost three years after the Legal Services Act was passed, “the time is right to assess the early impact of these major reforms”. 

She will add: “The consumer impact report [previously the consumer welfare index] will provide an annual health-check on whether consumers are getting the benefits they were promised in the changing market place.” 

The report, to be published in the summer, will use a “basket of indicators” to measure the success of the reforms, using a mixture of published data and original research. Last October, the panel appointed an expert group to advise on the report. 

On regulation, the Legal Services Board is working on a draft set of criteria against which to judge which legal activities should be reserved, and the panel says it is “critically important” that consumers are at the heart of this. 

The work programme says: “The consumer panel recognises that regulation offers vital consumer protection, but that unnecessary regulation can reduce choice, prevent innovation and increase prices. 

“The subtle distinctions in the regulatory landscape are confusing to consumers, who assume all legal services are regulated. Consumers cannot make informed choices if they do not understand the differences in consumer protection attached to competing providers. To help build understanding, we have asked the Legal Services Board to explore the feasibility of a single regulatory badge; we will pursue this idea further in the coming year.” 

Standards for price comparison sites were on last year’s work programme but were put on ice because of the work the panel was asked to do on will-writing. The panel says its enthusiasm for such sites is tempered by an awareness of problems that have dented trust in websites in other sectors, including limited coverage of the market, lack of transparency around commercial relationships, manipulation of consumer choice and privacy concerns. 

“The consumer panel is keen to ensure that price comparison websites in legal services do not fall into the same traps,” the programme says. “We wish them to be a source of reliable information from the beginning, rather than have to rely on regulators to fix problems later. We will draw up a set of good practice standards drawing on experience from other arenas and then measure services against them.” 

The work programme also includes: 

  • Helping vulnerable consumers – research with small charities on their needs as consumers of legal services and starting a series of studies with groups of consumers at particular risk of disadvantage when using lawyers;
  • Regulating not-for-profit providers – whether they should be brought inside the regulatory net after transitional provisions run out in April 2013, which the Legal Services Board favours, although they can still be regulated differently from other alternative business structures;
  • Quality schemes – developing criteria for robust quality assurance schemes and assessing whether existing schemes meet these standards; and
  • Regulatory independence – keeping a watching brief to ensure that regulation is independent in practice as well as on paper.

Dr Hayter said: “In the difficult economic climate, access to high quality and affordable legal advice matters more than ever. A key focus of our work this year will be giving a stronger voice to consumers in vulnerable circumstances – including small charities and the disabled – who can struggle to have their interests heard.”

The panel’s future is still in doubt, however, because of government plans to roll it, and other non-financial consumer bodies, into Citizens Advice. Both the panel, which has a statutory basis in the Legal Services Act, and the board have been fighting the move. The panel is also resisting government attempts to onto the Ministry of Justice’s.


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