Legal Services Bill ushers in new era

Barrister-turned-politico Lord Falconer unveiled the future of the law late last month with the draft Legal Services Bill. As proposed in October’s White Paper, the different legal professions will soon be regulated by an overarching regulator, the Legal Services Board (LSB), and a complaints-handling board, the Office for Legal Complaints (OLC).

Bar chair Stephen Hockman QC has given a broad welcome to the bill, praising the fact that the Government had invited consultation before drawing it up. But Hockman has also voiced a number of concerns. He says the cost implications of the new system have to be scrutinised to prevent practitioners already struggling under legal aid cuts from being hit.

Hockman also launched a thinly veiled dig at the Law Society’s complaints handling by predicting that the OLC will offer less redress for disgruntled consumers than the present system. In an exclusive interview with The Lawyer (29 May), he pointed out that the Legal Services Ombudsman Zahida Manzoor had always found the bar’s complaints handling satisfactory and indeed had praised the way it responded to her suggestions for improvement.

The bar has just hired its new Bar Complaints Commissioner, Robert Behrens, to continue its oversight of complaints handling. Behrens was formerly secretary to the committee on Standards in Public Life and, as a senior civil servant, should well be able to cope with the requirements of the job, which are to oversee the bar’s complaints process and review the whole system. But Behrens’ role will not necessarily be maintained once the OLC is established; that depends on the details of the legislation.

Hockman’s other concern is that the LSB needs to act as a light-touch, independent regulator. This was an issue he also touched on in his interview with The Lawyer, when he expressed his satisfaction that the recent regulatory/representative split of the Bar Council had gone well and produced an independent regulatory body.

The bar has hired some very senior lay officials to run the new Bar Standards Board, such as the former chair of the General Medical Council. It certainly seems to be well poised for the changes that will come in as the draft bill becomes law.