Opinion

The scaremongering by elements of the legal profession in the debate surrounding David Clementi’s review of the provision of legal services is growing a little wearisome. Stephen Irwin’s article in The Lawyer (23 February) is no exception.

The portrayal of the supporters of deregulation, such as the RAC, as companies that are only interested in subverting the profession with no care for client interest or protection is totally unjustified. The RAC has set out its position over the preceding two years very clearly. It believes that the Solicitors’ Incorporated Practice Rules should be amended to allow the establishment of incorporated practices that are wholly or partly owned by non-solicitors.

This proposal does not create a multidisciplinary practice. It does not even create a similar disciplinary practice. It establishes a solicitor practice, which is staffed and managed by solicitors. It provides legal services to its clients in the same way as any high street firm and is subject to the same regulation from the Law Society.

The RAC does not believe that client protections will be eroded. Guaranteed levels of indemnity insurance will be in place, solicitor account rules will be adhered to and staff will be properly qualified and subject to the necessary Continuing Professional Development requirements. The entire legal entity and the individual lawyers therein will be fully regulated and accountable.

Irwin poses the question: “How is a client of RAC Legal Services, whose dispute is supported by RAC insurance, protected from the RAC lawyer trying to find ways of avoiding the policy?” That client is protected in the same way as at present. The Employed Solicitors Code already allows employed solicitors to act for certain clients other than their employers. Those clients are not suffering through poor service, illegal activity or financial irregularity.

Hard as it might be for some elements of the legal profession to accept, the rules of professional conduct for lawyers are not the only regulatory rules in existence in the UK. In the realm of legal service provision, the RAC is already regulated by both the Law Society and the Financial Services Authority. Even if the RAC wanted to, it is not able to avoid obligations under its legal expenses policies or membership contracts. The RAC’s present and prospective clients are, and always will be, fully protected.

The notion that Irwin puts forward – that allowing Tesco or the RAC to enter the market will lead to “Robert Maxwell Legal” and “IRA Law” – is ridiculous and barely worthy of response. Under the RAC’s proposals, the provision of reserved legal services is only through appropriately qualified, registered and regulated lawyers. Those who are engaged in criminal activity are not currently allowed to practise. So it will remain.

RAC Legal Services’ own research reveals that consumers would jump at the chance to turn to a fully-qualified solicitor working for a large, reputable company with which they already have a longstanding relationship. This might be a motoring organisation, a trade union, a bank or a building society. Whichever they choose, they know they will be likely to receive more choice, better value and a much higher standard of customer service than is currently available.

Under the proposals put forward by the RAC and others, there is no prospect of clients suffering, as Irwin suggests, similar losses to those of Equitable Life or to the shareholders in Enron, Parmalat and WorldCom. Rather, they will provide clients with the professionalism they expect from lawyers, combined with the quality and expertise they expect from the customer-focused brands.

These proposals are only a threat to those who wish to stick their heads in the sand and pretend that the world does not change and develop. To any lawyer wishing to progress their career and operate in an exciting and innovative new world, the proposals are something to be welcomed with open arms.