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Engagement with legal services tends to happen at some of the most vulnerable times in people’s lives. Whether it’s buying a property, dealing with a dispute at work, writing a will or facing criminal accusations, the services of lawyers come into play at pivotal and stressful moments. Because of this, access to justice through the right quality and value of legal services at the right time is crucial to people’s economic well-being and to a fair and democratic society.

Despite this, consumers of legal services too often feel unable to question the quality of the service they are getting from their lawyers. People may feel deferential towards their barristers or solicitor and the advice they give - in the same way that they would hesitate to question the instructions of their surgeon or GP. A lack of technical understanding, compounded by the sense that the law is complex and remote, reinforces this distance. More practically, without comparative data and quality hallmarks, individual or business consumers have traditionally tended to take what they’re given when it comes to legal support, often relying on personal recommendations without a real sense of whether and how to best “shop around”.

Much of the deference felt towards lawyers can be traced back to the way in which legal services have developed in this country. Unlike virtually every other industry, development has been gradual and incremental over centuries: there hasn’t been a single defining innovation. A complex mix of values and structures has driven it, resulting in the profession being slower than many others to recognise that its system of self-regulation, fuelled by concerns over the rule of law, was no longer fit for purpose at the end of the last century.
Quite rightly, it is a matter of first principles for English lawyers – and for the new Legal Services Board - that the independence of the legal profession should be protected from Government intervention. But self-regulation wasn’t seen to protect consumers and in turn the public interest. In the context of complaints, there was a widespread feeling that matters were being handled too slowly and not effectively enough. More widely, in delivering services, there was no obvious focus for ensuring that the bodies that regulate lawyers – including the Bar Council and the Law Society - were building consumers’ interests into their policy, particularly because of a lack of significant lay involvement in the regulators themselves.

Most seriously, people outside the legal profession found it puzzling that such bodies could on the one hand represent their members whilst also simultaneously acting as their regulator. How could they be a passionate advocate for the profession whilst also being a dispassionate regulator?

Therefore, just as the public interest demands protection for the independence of the profession, so it also demands minimum standards of consumer protection in the legal services sector. That was a key underpinning of Parliament’s decision to pass the Legal Services Act 2007 with cross-party support. The Act created a new model of regulation for lawyers – creating the Legal Services Board as the new body to oversee regulation of legal services with a mission to put consumers’ interests at their core.

The creation of this new model for the regulation of legal services is both novel and precautionary. The new oversight body is independent of Government, ensuring that the freedom of the legal sector from political intervention is enshrined. However, the clear mission for it and the traditional regulators in the Bar and the solicitors’ profession is to create a golden thread of positive consumer benefit – not just consumer protection - that runs right through the provision and regulation of legal services.

A demonstration of fresh winds blowing through this most ancient and traditional of professions has been the launch this week of the new Legal Services Consumer Panel – set up to advise the work of the Legal Services Board, the Office for Legal Complaints and other players in legal regulation and so put the consumer voice at the heart of legal services reform. For the first time, decisions on the rules governing the bodies that regulate lawyers in this country will be subject to the views of an independent group of experienced consumers.

This panel, chaired by Dr Dianne Hayter, will bring the perspective of all users of legal services to the table and embed the experience of consumers and their perspective in all decisions; from complaints-handling to quality and redress.

As an irresistible part of modernity, standards of transparency and openness that consumers expect across other services are being injected into the legal profession. The sector has much to be proud of, with significant current innovation and creativity occurring on the back of centuries of expertise and tradition. But the days of immunity from modern standards of questioning and scrutiny by consumers are over. Customer service and consumer redress are as important to safeguard in the context of legal advice as any other service – perhaps more so. And the future of the English legal system and access to justice in this country will be better off for embedding it.

Chris Kenny is Chief Executive of the Legal Services Board 



 

Comments

Bramshill delenda est.
ron_broxted wrote:
Wednesday, 11 November 2009 at 01:51 pm (UTC)
The law in its majesty allows both rich and poor alike to starve. Has it occured to anyone that the law is by and for wealthy white public school people? Many laws yet little justice.
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