Regulators have been asked to explain what action they are taking in relation to those involved in a collapsed direct access business.
The Legal Services Board, the oversight regulator, wrote earlier this month to the Bar Standards Board demanding an assurance that the barristers’ regulator is pursuing ‘immediate regulatory consequences’ for those party to Absolute Barrister.
The company, which claimed to revolutionise the solicitor-based model, went into administration last month resulting in clients reportedly being left to represent themselves in court.
The LSB letter noted that nine lay consumers had paid money to Absolute Barrister and were now without representation, with these individuals signposted instead by the BSB to advice charity Advocate.
Chris Nichols, director of policy and regulation at the LSB, said he wanted to know the consequences of the episode for ‘those involved in running Absolute Barrister and also potentially barristers who have been providing service through Absolute Barrister’.
Nichols said: ‘From the information available, there would appear to be a concern that Absolute Barrister may have been providing more than just an intermediary service and may also have been holding client money.’
The LSB also requested more information on what the BSB has done to ascertain who has been affected by the collapse of the company, and what measures are being pursued to remedy the harm suffered.
There may also be further questions down the line about the direct access model itself, with Nichols adding: ‘The [Absolute Barrister] case also raises wider policy questions about the status of intermediaries and barristers’ engagement with them, which might have ongoing application in relation to other providers.
‘On this front, it is important to emphasise that we support and encourage responsible innovation that commands public trust. We note that there are other intermediary services apparently operating competently in the market. However, this case would appear to offer some important learning.’
The letter was published by the LSB ahead of its board meeting today. The BSB was required to respond by 21 January.
Absolute Barrister was founded by husband and wife barrister team Simon and Katy Gittins in 2013. They aimed to use technology to enable clients to instruct barristers directly and manage their cases online, with fixed fees promised and unbundled services offered.