Is the Legal Services Consumer Panel facing a crisis of legitimacy? You might think a public interest watchdog would have something to say about last week’s massive hike in civil court fees, which the Law Society has warned spells disaster for access to justice, pricing the public and small businesses out of the courts. And what about the slow strangulation of legal aid, that forgotten pillar of the welfare state so egregiously vandalised by a doctrinaire lord chancellor?
What could be more relevant to legal services ‘consumers’ (if that’s what we must now call them) than this? Listen to the silence.
The explanation, of course, is that under the terms of its establishment the panel – a creature of the Legal Services Act – is operating with two arms and a leg tied behind its back. For example, its work on litigants in person focuses on the regulatory implications of wider policy developments. It can focus on the regulated sector’s response (unbundling research) and the unregulated sector (McKenzie friends).
But it cannot recommend where legal aid should be distributed.
We sympathise. But it’s hardly satisfactory when an organisation set up to represent the ‘interests of users of legal services’ (who explicitly include the small businesses most affected by court fee hikes) must stay silent about the market upheavals that most affect those users.
The panel has no bark, never mind bite.