Fabian Soc calls for end to OSS

Influential Blairite think tank the Fabian Society will this Wednesday publish a strongly-worded report calling for the end of self-regulation by solicitors and barristers.

The report, coming amidst growing moves to scrap the Law Society's control of complaints handling, is a devastating attack on self regulation by both professions and is sure to increase the pressure on the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors (OSS).

Written by a solicitor from trade union firm Thompsons, Arun Arora, and Andrew Francis, a researcher at University of Glamorgan's law school, the report states: “In modern Britain, the rights of any profession to both represent and regulate its members are outmoded, outdated and outweighed by the need for consumer protection and confidence within the legal system.”

The justification for self-regulation, it argues, is that it allows the profession freedom to work in its clients' interest.

But the report says this “public service rhetoric” is an excuse for the profession to “legitimise its independence from government”. It says self-regulation secures the profession “significant market advantages” when solicitors are already in a position of power over their clients when it comes to a complaint since they know the legal system.

Highlighting the soaring number of complaints against solicitors – the existence of which was first revealed by The Lawyer – it attacks the OSS' explanation of “increasing consumer awareness”, as flimsy.

“An alternative and more obvious explanation is that lawyers are failing their clients,” it argues, making an overhaul of the complaints system more urgent.

It also attacks barristers for maintaining their immunity to negligence claims and for creating a new complaints body which is dependent on the Bar Council and has “minimal” lay member involvement.

It suggests an independent regulator modelled on the doctors' complaints body, the General Medical Council, but with a majority of lay people, or on the legal services ombudsman, with expanded support staff.

It says the new solicitors' regulatory body should take over the issuing of practice certificates and donate a proportion of its income to the Law Society, which should become a purely representative body.

The Law Society has been dogged by calls for it to be stripped of its self-regulatory powers in recent years.

The Government has already decided to take the regulation of solicitor financial advisers out of the society's hands, and the Home Office has threatened to set up an independent body to regulate immigration advisers.

Several MPs have been lobbying for the OSS to be scrapped, and it is on the shortlist to be investigated by the Home Affairs Committee.

However, the Government, the Legal Services Ombudsman and the National Consumer Council have all said the OSS should be given more time to improve its record.

Robert Lindsay

See editorial, page 16