I know that admitting this is a bit like inviting Jehovah’s Witnesses into the house, but I am genuinely interested in the work of the Legal Services Consumer Panel.
The panel’s latest background paper, Empowering Consumers, raises important questions about whether people who buy legal services are consumers in the conventional sense of the word.
The significance is not just to the legal services market at a time of unprecedented change, but to sectors from healthcare to education to public safety, where the government is offering consumer empowerment as the answer to funding shortages and allegedly entrenched producer interests.
As far as legal services are concerned, the panel seems to believe that empowering consumers will be an uphill struggle. For many reasons, customers do not make full use of information about the legal market, and there are inherent limits to how empowered they can be.
Rightly, the panel says it wants to provoke debate on the topic. The background paper concludes by announcing that it is inviting ‘stakeholder views’ at an event later this month. Questions to be addressed include: To what extent is the legal services market unique? Which aspects of low consumer empowerment are of most concern? How much does it matter that consumers are not shopping around? What does this mean for competition in the legal services market?
As questions these are of considerable interest to Gazette readers, I called the consumer panel to ask for details of the event so I could send a reporter. The panel’s Steve Brooker happily told me the date - 28 January - but that it would not be open to the press.
Why not? ‘To allow a free and frank exchange of views,’ apparently. OK, so if delegates are shy about seeing their names in print, could we attend under the Chatham House Rule, and not identify participants? Nope. Is this normal practice? ‘We don’t hold that many meetings, so we can’t say whether it’s normal or not.’
In the great scandal of secrecy in British public life, a minor watchdog’s preference for private debate is not worth much angry ink. But the consumer panel’s outlook seems symptomatic of a mindset afflicting other bodies set up under the Legal Services Act – see the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s approach to public consultations and the Legal Ombudsman’s nervousness about publishing data in open formats.
In its corporate bumph, the panel says it ‘demands transparency of others and is keen to lead by example in order to allow consumers of legal services to see how we have represented their interests’.
Opening discussion events to the press - in the words of a former master of the rolls, the eyes and ears of the general public - would seem to be a basic first step.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor
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