With the onset of summer and the inevitable distractions this brings, it would be easy to lose sight of the draft Legal Services Bill. We must ensure that this does not happen. Ever since the publication of the Office of Fair Trading report on competition in the professions in March 2001 there has been a wide-ranging debate about the place of the consumer – the end user – in the setup and regulation of the legal services industry.
In every subsequent stage of the review and reform process, the debate has raged to and fro. Speaking on behalf of the consumer, I am very pleased to see that in the publication of this bill the Government has stuck to its guns and put the consumer once more at the forefront of its mind.
In launching the draft bill, the Department for Constitutional Affairs claimed that it “paves the way for improved choice, quality and availability in the legal services market”.
The Lord Chancellor commented that “at some point in their lives, most people will need to seek legal advice… When they do, they need to know that they will be getting a modern, straightforward and effective service that gives value for money”.
The creation of the Legal Services Board as an umbrella regulator will provide a far more transparent and robust regulatory system. This is vital for the user of legal services. Not only must any effective regulatory regime be fair and unbiased, it must also be seen to be fair and unbiased. Such a perception of fairness – particularly from a consumer’s point of view – is very difficult to create where the representative functions and regulatory oversight of the profession are vested in one body. However, such a position could be achieved where there is a transparent and real oversight of those professional bodies by a completely independent body.
The other significant area of the bill is Part 5, relating to ‘alternative business structures’. Removing some of the current unjustified restrictions on the types of businesses that can provide legal services to customers will stimulate competition and innovation. I believe millions of consumers would jump at the chance to turn to a legal professional working for a large, reputable company with which they already have a longstanding relationship. They know they will be able to receive more choice, better value and a much higher standard of customer service than is currently available.
This is because large providers can pass on the benefits of scale. They can invest across the whole range of their businesses in systems and processes that improve accessibility and efficiency and which drive down cost and manual administration. The current business structure for legal practices does not encourage long-term investment in IT, HR or communications. Consumers express dissatisfaction because they only communicate with their solicitor during office hours, and even then often via a secretary.
They are frustrated because cases take too long – postal systems, dictation and typing pools slow the process. New entrants will be able to offer consumers advanced technology and multiple channels of communication, depending on individual needs. They will care for their clients in the manner in which the clients want to be cared for.
The combination of new providers, a new regulator and a new complaints-handling office will bring the legal profession into the 21st century. I welcome the publication of this draft bill and the appointment of the joint committee. This process has come a long way, but the needs of consumers demand that it continues apace.