Oversight regulators are spending too much time on high-concept issues such as professional ethics and the rule of law and not enough on issues facing hard-up consumers.
In its response to the Legal Services Board’s draft business plan for 2023/24, the Legal Services Consumer Panel said ‘too little attention’ is being given to those who cannot access justice or those whose needs are not being met during the current cost-of-living crisis.
Panel chair Sarah Chambers said the consumer watchdog had been supportive of the LSB’s exploration in the past year of how regulation could support the rule of law and high standards of professional ethics. But it was ‘disproportionate’, she said, to devote two research slots out of the five proposed to these issues, especially as there is ‘little to nothing’ allocated to access to justice or unmet legal needs.
‘We agree that rule of law and ethics are important issues and resources should be dedicated to understanding how to tackle and solve existing problems,’ said Chambers. Nonetheless, citizens and consumers are also experiencing an unprecedented restriction to access to justice, exacerbated by the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis. We are aware that these problems are not largely caused by regulation, and cannot be solved by regulatory changes alone; nevertheless, we believe that regulation can have an important role to play in mitigating some of the problems, partly through encouraging innovative solutions.’
Chambers also highlighted the lack of LSB work on establishing ‘useful and consistent’ quality indicators in the sector, to allow consumers to make better informed decisions. Almost seven years after the Competition and Markets Authority earmarked transparency as a key priority, there remains a sense that the LSB should be demanding more of frontline regulators.
‘Consumers still do not have a tangible output that enhances choice and decision making. While we accept that the [LSB’s] consumer empowerment piece compels the regulators to act, the reality is that they have been dragging their feet on these issues for years and are still not acting fast enough, at a pace consumers deserve.’
Chambers said it was pleasing to see consumer vulnerability in the plan but disagreed with the intention to conduct ‘yet more research’ in this area, as it has already looked into issues around asylum seekers, deaf clients, individuals with learning difficulties and consumers with family needs.
All of these pieces of work have found similar problems, and the consumer panel suggested that the LSB should now issue guidance on regulating ‘through the lens of consumers in vulnerable circumstances’, focusing on areas such as training, codes of conduct, risk assessment, supervision and enforcement.
The panel urged the LSB to find ways to encourage lawyers to do more to tackle 'advice deserts'. Chambers added: ‘Regulation can explore incentives for commercial firms to go beyond the provision of some pro bono work, and consider making significant contributions to law tech and other innovations, possibly in collaboration with academic institutions and/or free advice organisations, specifically to address unmet legal needs.’
This article is now closed for comment.