The future of the legal sector's consumer-facing information website is in doubt after it has emerged that no-one wants to run it.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority, one of the regulators running and funding the Legal Choices site, has said the collective ownership model is no longer appropriate for managing a sector-wide, high-profile product.
SRA chief executive Paul Philip last month wrote, on behalf of all regulators who co-own the site, to his counterpart at the Legal Services Board, Matthew Hill, calling for the oversight regulator to take ownership of Legal Choices, saying the its future was at risk. The Bar Standards Board has already withdrawn from the scheme.
In his letter, Philip said the SRA’s solution would secure a public service that is ‘genuinely valuable and well regarded’. But it appeared last week that the LSB has little appetite for the job, with the board effectively telling frontline regulators the website is their responsibility.
The site was founded in 2012 and purports to ‘keep watch’ over legal professionals and the work they do. It includes links to registers of lawyers, information about costs and details about the differences between different types of legal professionals.
The SRA runs the website on behalf of the joint regulators and manages a £750,000 three-year development plan – due to end this year – that was drawn up in response to calls for more consumer information by the Competition and Markets Authority. Indeed, the development of Legal Choices was a key element of the CMA’s demand for more transparency: its 2016 review of the legal sector identified the revamping and promotion of the site as a ‘starting point’ for customers needing help, information and guidance on how to navigate the market.
The BSB's withdrawal last year left a £52,000 funding gap. Philip said the remaining members continue to press for progress on the funding shortfall.
His letter adds: ‘We believe that Legal Choices needs to be run by an organisation that has sector wide reach and the powers to require the co-operation and funding needed to ensure its future, in a way that we, as one of the front-line regulators, do not.’
But the LSB appears unwilling to take ownership of Legal Choices, despite expressing a ‘great deal of sympathy’ for the SRA’s arguments.
The issue was discussed at last week’s LSB board meeting. Following the meeting, LSB chair Helen Phillips wrote in a summary that the board agreed that Legal Choices had the potential to become a powerful resource for consumers and that its development was very important.
But she added: ‘We considered it hugely important for the reputation of the regulators, individually and collectively, that they continued to take responsibility for delivering against the challenge that they had accepted. While we could see some of the rationale for the LSB assuming control, and indeed could see some benefits for the public in doing so, they were outweighed significantly by the consequences of the regulators failing to deliver.’
She said the LSB would instead offer extra advice and assistance to help the regulators agree on a revised development plan and budget.
A spokesperson for the SRA said today that Legal Choices was set up by all the frontline regulators in 2014 to support people to get to grips with the legal sector. In light of the CMA recommendation in 2016, the regulators have worked together to further develop the site and it is currently attracting 'significant' visitor numbers.
He added: 'In light of the need to ensure effective and efficient governance, the regulators are in discussion with the LSB about how best to ensure the website continues to meet the needs of the public and small businesses.'