The independence of the legal profession from government is under threat from Whitehall, Legal Services Consumer Panel chairwoman Dr Dianne Hayter warned on Saturday.
Speaking at the Bar Council annual conference, Dr Hayter revealed that the Legal Services Board (LSB), Legal Ombudsman and consumer panel have all been told to close their websites, while she highlighted the threat from legislation that will allow government to abolish or amend the terms of the LSB.
Dr Hayter also spoke out again against the government’s plan to fold the panel into Citizens Advice, given the conflict of interest of it being a major advice provider (see various stories here).
The possible closure of the websites is part of a government-wide initiative to reduce the number of websites and the costs associated with them. Information would instead be transferred to the Directgov website. Legal Futures understands that all three bodies are resisting the move. The websites are currently paid for by the legal profession and it is thought the decision was made without considering this.
Dr Hayter said that both the panel and website issues – about which the LSB had received no notice – were “tiddlers” alongside the Public Bodies Bill, which is effecting the government’s so-called bonfire of the quangos by giving ministers extensive powers to abolish, merge and modify the constitutional arrangements of a large number of public bodies.
The LSB is not currently subject to the bill, but is listed in schedule 7, which means it can later be brought within the legislation’s scope via ministerial order approved by both Houses of Parliament.
Last Thursday, the House of Lords constitution committee – whose members include former Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine, former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith and top QC Lord Pannick – expressed deep concern over the way the bill confers on ministers “Henry VIII” powers to amend primary legislation by order. “Many of the bodies included… were originally set up by primary legislation but could now be abolished by simple ministerial order,” the committee explained, arguing that the government has not made out the case for this approach, rather than the usual route of legislative amendment and parliamentary debate.
Committee chairman Baroness Jay said: “Our report does not determine whether these public bodies should be abolished or modified. However, we consider that Parliament should be given the opportunity fully to debate any reforms. I do not believe that this will be possible unless reforms are implemented through primary legislation, not ministerial order.”
Dr Hayter – who is herself a Labour peer – said consumers would make common cause with the profession on the question of independence of the profession from government.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “There are no changes to the LSB currently under consideration. The LSB, in line with all public bodies, is subject to triennial review. The first review is scheduled to take place in 2012.
“No decision has been made concerning the possible merger of the Legal Services Consumer Panel with other consumer groups. The government continuously examines the best way for the consumer to continue to be represented in the legal services sector. We are currently examining if this can be achieved more effectively by a new central consumer group with a wide remit to consider competition and consumer education issues. Before any decision is made a full discussion and consultation will take place and the responses fully considered.”
A further response on the website issue will be added to this story shortly.