Whatever happened to the big bang?

As if the disappearance of Spring and the return to a distinctly chilly feel wasn’t enough to dampen my spirits, just a cursory glance at the news in the last week has left me feeling a bit depressed: secret courts, government snooping proposals, a 15-year old killing his mother with a hammer, even ‘pastygate’ and the hosepipe ban. There’s not a lot to be cheery about.

This is despite the announcement of the first three law firms to become alternative business structures (ABS), which should have been a moment suffused with a sense of achievement.  But I can’t help feeling the promised land is still a way off.

I don’t doubt for a moment that the managing director of Co-operative Legal Services, unsurprisingly one of the three, means it when he says ‘the presence of The Co-operative’s trusted brand and values, together with a combination of first class products and services will provide customers with greater accessibility to legal advice and better value for money.’  What I am beginning to wonder though is how many other law firms will be following him.

I know I shouldn’t take too much from comments I read on the Law Gazette website, they represent only a miniscule sample of the profession and a self selecting, if not wholly unrepresentative, one at that.  However, it’s discouraging  to see there are still solicitors out there whose heckles instantly rise at the suggestion that the consumer redress arrangements might need beefing up a bit.

It’s not so much the substance of what Anonymous, Anon, Bus Passenger, Anon and DomCoop have to say about the LeO proposals, which, it should be noted, have only been mooted for consultation, but the tone used to decry them.  I had rather hoped the days of solicitors thinking every bureaucrat was out to get them had passed.  And I more than hoped the days of the ‘them and us’ attitude towards consumers had been consigned to the scrap heap.

The legal ombudsman is not a consumer champion and he is not there to fight their corner or ensure they get one over on the profession: he is there as an independent arbitrator.  But it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some solicitors are still howling in indignation at anyone who suggests, just maybe, they might not always be in the right.

Barristers, and their esteemed regulator the Bar Standards Board (BSB), have also been getting hot under the collar lately about the now-not-so-new structure of legal regulation.  In their submissions to the government’s triennial review of the Legal Services Board, both the BSB and the Bar Council called for the Legal Services Board to be reined in (or even abolished) and for the Legal Services Consumer Panel to be scrapped.

I am afraid I don’t have the energy to explain why this is a bad idea, I rather thought I had done with all those arguments once the Legal Services Act was passed.  Although I will make the observation that the fact many in the profession harbour hatred for these bodies demonstrates precisely why we need them.

Instead, I will suggest a much better idea, one I think many consumers and MPs would probably support, if a recent survey for the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is anything to go by.  With apologies for the acronyms, merge the BSB, the SRA and the other smaller regulators with the LSB and have one joined-up regulator for the legal profession.

It’s hardly a revolutionary idea, it would be much simpler for everyone to understand and it would get rid of all the sniping, well, some of it.  It would also make much more sense as the traditionally distinct roles of solicitors and barristers become more homogenous and as legal services come to be delivered through organisations other than law firms and barristers chambers.

Aside from all this geeky regulation stuff, another report this week was even more depressing.  The LSB, that thing barristers want us to abolish, found evidence that legal fees have continued to rise at or above the consumer prices index over the past five years as consumer wealth has fallen.  This has fuelled the perception that legal services are expensive and resulted in more people going it alone without a lawyer.

It is not only access to legal services that might be under threat.  The report says the number of complaints for solicitors rose at a greater rate than the proportional increase in solicitor numbers between 2004 and 2009 and that ‘the seriousness of service failures appears to be increasing’.

It also warned consumers still had little ability to judge the quality of legal services they received, something echoed by the SRA survey which showed MPs were concerned about their constituents lack of knowledge and understanding of legal services.

This brings me back to something I have written about before, the need for more comprehensive public legal education.  This is implicit if not explicit in the LSB's regulatory objectives, but I have to be honest and say I have no idea if anyone in the regulatory structure is actually doing anything about it.

I’ll stick my neck out and suggest it isn’t likely to be a priority for the SRA or the BSB and I suspect most lawyers don’t ever even think about it. Which I would say is rather counterproductive, because educated consumers provide less scope for lawyers to screw up.  And educated consumers help to drive up standards and boost competition by forcing providers to offer more choice.

The lesson, it seems, is that ABS alone won’t be enough to transform the legal market.  There will be no ‘big bang’ and the revolution is going to take longer than the Arab Spring.  And changing legal professionals’ hearts and minds?  That's going to be a really slow burner.

Posted in: Legal services

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