The Cabinet Office has refused to confirm whether it is going ahead with shutting down the websites of the Legal Services Board, Legal Ombudsman and Legal Services Consumer Panel after a strong attack in the House of Lords last night that claimed the move threatens the independence of the legal profession.
Legal Futures first reported the threat last November but it had gone quiet and there were hopes that it had faded away. However, the three received another letter last week ordering them to close down their sites by the end of the month. They will instead be moved into the Ministry of Justice’s website, as part of a broader rationalisation of government websites.
Baroness Hayter, who chairs the consumer panel, described the move to peers last night as “a quite serious swipe” at the three given the importance of their and the profession’s independence from government. She said they have strongly protested against the direction to use “an approved government website”. Elizabeth France, who chairs the board of the ombudsman, has pointed out to Cabinet Office minister Frances Maude that other ombudsman all have .org.uk URLs, “signifying their independence from the sectors on which they adjudicate and their independence from government”.
Baroness Hayter added: “Our three websites cost nothing to the public purse as they are funded by lawyers, so there is no public expenditure rationale for this. However, it raises serious constitutional issues about the independence of the governance of those bodies, something to which the government seem a little deaf.”
She said she would prefer the panel to have no website at all rather than “being an arm of the government’s”, adding: “I hope it will not come to that, with all its implications for transparency, to say nothing of my role as chair. The Secretary of State, I am sure, would remove me fairly promptly if I were to disobey in those ways.”
Recently announced amendments to the Public Bodies Bill – which was the legislation under debate when Baroness Hayter spoke – mean that the Legal Services Board can no longer be abolished simply by ministerial order, but she suggested that closing the websites might be “a new way of exercising control and undermining the independence of a body”.
A Cabinet Office spokeswoman told Legal Futures: “As part of the government’s response to the UK Digital Champion’s proposals around government on the Internet, we are exploring options to make it easy for citizens to access government online services, together with a strategic and long-term reduction in the costs of the state’s web estate and other digital media.”
A Legal Services Board spokesman said: “We continue to discuss these issues with the department.”