The legal complaints handler has expressed fears that allowing solicitors to work outside regulated firms will leave consumers without redress.
In a critical consultation response, the Legal Ombudsman last week set out a series of concerns at Solicitors Regulation Authority plans to remove practising restrictions. Under proposals brought forward in the SRA’s ‘looking to the future’ programme, individual self-employed solicitors would be able to provide reserved legal services to the public without the need to be a recognised sole practitioner. New rules ensuring compensation fund provisions and the requirement for ‘adequate and appropriate’ indemnity insurance would apply.
The ombudsman, which has supported other SRA plans for price transparency, said this proposal raises questions about the protection afforded to consumers – particularly where the solicitor works in a company providing other regulated services.
‘We envisage difficulties in understanding who has actually undertaken work for the consumer, whether this can be evidenced and whether we have powers to request evidence,’ said the response. Where provision of the legal service may be dependent on other providers in the business who fall outside of our jurisdiction, it may be difficult for us to investigate a complaint fully.’
The ombudsman said that a consumer bringing a complaint about the service they have received will expect all elements of the case to be investigated, but the organisation will have to be selective about which parts of the service it can look into.
The proposed system, it added, would be more complicated and increase confusion, as well as leaving a shortfall in enforcement. ‘We question how far consumers will understand the relationship they are entering into in these cases. In our experience, consumers rarely appreciate the difference between a regulated and unregulated business, and choice is often driven by cost and word of mouth rather than an assessment of the protections available to them.’
The consultation closes this week and the SRA expects to implement any changes no sooner than next winter.
The Law Society has already expressed concern about consumer protection in the new regime and urged the SRA to be more prescriptive about what insurance cover self-employed solicitors should be required to take out.