The potential harm to consumers arising from enduring weaknesses in legal services regulation justifies further reform, says a report published today by University College London's Centre for Ethics and Law.
The interim report of the Independent Review of Legal Services Regulation, conducted by Stephen Mayson, honorary professor in the Faculty of Laws at UCL, calls on contributions from 200 interested parties. It identifies a mismatch between consumer expectations of regulation and protection, and the current structure as established by the 2007 Legal Services Act.
In particular, the review questions the continuing need for ‘reserved’ legal activities that exclude providers outside the existing framework. ‘The justification for the reservation of the current legal activities is stronger in some cases (such as rights of audience and the conduct of litigation) than it is in others (such as the narrowly defined probate activity or the administration of oaths),’ the report says.
The nature of the separation of regulatory functions from representative functions under the 2007 act remains 'unsatisfactory', the report says. However, it does not envisage that representative bodies would lose all their ‘permitted purposes’ funding under any reforms. ‘A case could be made for preserving compulsory funding for… important public interest activities,’ the report says.
It adds: ‘In principle, regulators are the natural (and arguably better) guardians of consumers’ interests, by determining and enforcing the minimum or basic requirements for legal services. Equally, the professional bodies are the natural (and arguably better) custodians of the higher standards and aspirations associated with a professional calling and vocation.’
The report adds that a more focused role for regulation would offer an opportunity to rationalise the number and functions of current regulators.
The report adds that all consumers of legal services should be offered access to the Legal Ombudsman for redress if something has gone wrong. The ombudsman scheme could be widened in scope to act as a form of triage for issues raised, deciding whether a complaint is a dispute about service of a conduct matter to be referred to the regulator.
Mayson advocates an alternative or additional form of entry into regulation for those who do not hold a professional title, although he does not back the scrapping of professional titles as such. He also proposes that the application of regulatory requirements could be supported by a public register listing who is regulated and for what.
Mayson suggests that in future a new regulator could report directly to parliament, along the lines of the Professional Standards Authority for health and social care, to maintain public confidence in the profession's independence.
Following publication of the interim report, the Legal Services Board’s chief executive, Matthew Hill said: ‘Stephen’s report is a thorough and thoughtful analysis of a complex set of issues. It touches on a number of key areas that are of interest to us, and on which we look forward to engaging further in due course.’
Law Society president Simon Davis said: 'We will be reviewing the interim report with interest.'
Mayson will submit his final report to the Ministry of Justice in January 2020.