Choice is no panacea. Consider so-called ‘confusion pricing’, which has reached epidemic proportions in the provision of everyday items. Ostensibly a boon to the consumer, the proliferation, volatility and complexity of prices and tariffs is often designed to baffle and obfuscate. The bigger the gap between a consumer’s understanding of reasonable market value and price, the bigger the potential profit.
I know what my gas and mobile phone companies charge, but do I know if I am getting a good deal? Nope, not a clue. And I’m hardly alone. No sooner do I seek to compare one arcane tariff with another then the offer changes. Regulators can’t hope to keep up. Why would they? That is the free market, inviolable and infallible.
I was reminded of this when pondering progress toward a consumer-friendly utopia of deregulated legal services. And not because solicitors would set out to confuse clients – as befits a trusted profession, the vast majority of high street solicitors offer a good service at a fair price. This is often overlooked, because it is neither convenient nor politically fashionable to acknowledge the fact. For watchdogs, professionalism equals protectionism.
So what of their much-touted correctives?
A consumer who may never have encountered the law before will choose between a regulated firm of solicitors, an unregulated firm with solicitors, a regulated solicitor outside a regulated firm, a regulated alternative business structure staffed by solicitors but owned by non-solicitors, or an unregulated firm of non-solicitors. She will make her buying decision based on headline charges quoted online, though this may be a fraction of what she is eventually – and fairly – billed. (And what’s to stop lowballing?).
She will also need to evaluate both the newly divergent levels of compensation that she may be entitled to if things go wrong (assets over £250k? Sorry) and the adequacy of her provider’s indemnity cover (if applicable).
Few would dispute that being as upfront as possible about prices and protections is good practice. But in their ideological aversion to any form of prescription, the liberalisers risk making it more difficult for consumers than ever.