MPs today accused the legal consumer watchdog of ‘helping the destruction of access to justice’ during a heated exchange in parliament.
Leaders of the Legal Services Consumer Panel appeared before the justice committee of the House of Commons this morning to give evidence on the fallout of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO).
The organisation has welcomed the emergence of professional McKenzie friends as an alternative to public funding, and even provided office space for a new representative body to meet.
Yesterday it produced a report predicting the advent of ‘self-lawyering’.
Labour MP and committee member Andy McDonald, himself a solicitor, questioned how litigants are protected by a sector that remains unregulated.
‘Lawyers have gone through training and shelled out for professional indemnity insurance and are experts,’ he said. ‘Yet somebody can toddle along, say they are a McKenzie friend and start undermining and undercutting solicitors.’
His committee colleague Jeremy Corbyn, also a Labour MP, told the witnesses: ‘You are helping the destruction of universal access to justice and destroying careers.’
Elisabeth Davies, the consumer panel’s chair, said the group was trying to look at solutions to fill the gap caused by the removal of legal aid for large parts of civil justice.
‘We don’t know [non-traditional legal services] are second-rate quality. We want the absolute balance between consumer justice and protection.’
She added it was ‘inevitable’ that alternative providers would come forward after LASPO and said just 21% of people who seek advice now get it from a regulated lawyer.
The committee heard claims that some professional McKenzie friends can earn up to £50,000 a year advising litigants in family matters.
But panel adviser Steve Brooker told the committee that most earn much less and further regulation could increase costs to points where we ‘drive them away’.
In the same session, David Holland, chief executive of the Institute of Paralegals, said the blame for the emergence of unregulated advisers should be with solicitors and the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
‘McKenzie friends didn’t cause [solicitors] to be unaffordable to clients or put in place a regulatory burden [solicitors] are suffering from,’ he said.