Davies: some schemes’ claims can’t be relied upon

QCs should lose their title if they fall below an acceptable standard, the Legal Services Consumer Panel suggested today in a report that calls on legal bodies that run voluntary quality schemes (VQS) to improve checks on lawyers’ continuing competence so as to boost consumer confidence.

The report found that the Law Society has not expelled anyone from any of its accreditation schemes in the past 12 months “or seemingly in the last five years”.

It said: “This is surprising given that the Law Society schemes have the largest market coverage and the VQS accreditation is often a condition of legal aid contracts.”

The report, produced at the request of the Legal Services Board, said quality marks need to be strengthened before consumers can use them with confidence. It suggested that independent accreditation of VQS would improve their credibility.

Panel chairwoman Elisabeth Davies said: “Consumers tell us that specialist expertise is important to them when choosing lawyers, so voluntary quality schemes can be of real help. However, in their current form, some schemes’ claims that their members are better than the market average just can’t be relied upon by consumers.”

The report identified 10 characteristics a VQS should have to satisfy consumers that lawyer members are genuine specialists. These cover how schemes operate, consumer information and feedback, and how the schemes develop.

The panel tested them against 13 current quality schemes – eight from the Law Society, the QC appointment system, and those run by the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL), Action against Medical Accidents (AvMA), Resolution, and the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners.

Most of them were found to do well in relation to internal processes – such as entry requirements, re-accreditation and disciplinary arrangements – but the panel found several key areas where they need strengthening.

These were: more use of methods, such as spot checks of client files, to check members remain competent during their careers; greater lay input; better information provision for consumers; and building evidence to validate claims that schemes are delivering on their objectives of helping consumers to identify expert legal advice.

Only the APIL and AvMA schemes were found to meet four of the criteria in full, with none of the Law Society schemes managing more than two. The conveyancing quality scheme (CQS) met just one criterion in full – having a structured sanctions and disciplinary process.

Aside from mystery shopping of accredited firms (but not individuals) by APIL and limited random monitoring visits for CQS firms, the panel found no processes that went further than CPD in terms of assessing the actual competence of professionals.

One important question is what happens when someone is no longer competent, the report said, with the power to expel members the ultimate sanction. Apart from the Law Society, “almost all schemes have expelled members on a small number of occasions in the last five years”.

But the panel was concerned that it is almost impossible for appointees to lose a QC title. “The introduction of QASA [the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates] in criminal law demonstrates that regulators see a need for accreditation and ongoing competency checks in at least one part of advocacy,” the report said.

“Moreover, even if a QC-appointed advocate were assessed through QASA as not being competent to practise at the most senior levels of advocacy, they would still be able to hold their title. Given QC appointments are designed to signal ‘excellence’, it is unclear why they should not be subject to review.”

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