Legal Services Board “needs to focus more on access to justice”

Chambers: Call for focus on those with low incomes

The Legal Services Board (LSB) should put a priority on access to justice and the needs of people on low incomes rather than professional ethics in its next research programme, the Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP) has argued.

Meanwhile, the Bar Council has called for the scrapping of the LSB’s public panel, which gauges the public’s reaction to potential policies, arguing that its work should be carried out by the LSCP.

Responding to the LSB’s draft business plan for 2023/4, Sarah Chambers, chair of the consumer panel, said the oversight regulator’s proposed research programme was “too skewed towards exploring the rule of law and professional ethics” at the expense of “other pressing areas”.

Resources should be dedicated to solve existing problems in these areas, she said, but “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.”

Ms Chambers questioned the need for the LSB to carry out more research on “equality, diversity and inclusion, given the amount of data available within and beyond the legal services sector and internationally”.

She went on: “We consider that the most urgent equality concerns in the coming year are for those individuals and communities with low incomes and in areas with very low supply of legal services in housing and social welfare law, and that resources should be devoted to exploring those problems rather than in more generalised research on vulnerability, equality and diversity.”

Ms Chambers called on the LSB, in the context of “worsening” legal advice deserts and “times of economic crisis”, to consider how “creative regulation” could help.

“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.”

Meanwhile the Bar Council, in its response, restated its concern that the LSB was going beyond its “proper remit” in the Legal Services Act.

It was clear that the LSB “regards its remit as wider than it is” and on that basis “the whole emphasis and much of the content of the business plan is wrong-headed”.

The LSB had “no role in setting a legal sector-wide strategy for the reshaping of legal services” and no “convening role” or “convening power” under the Act.

Nor were “standardisation in the provision of legal services and innovation in their delivery” matters for the LSB.

In particular, the Bar Council called for “no continuing financing or use” of the public panel.

“We fail to understand what function the public panel performs which is not already met by proper and full use of the Legal Services Consumer Panel.”

By contrast, the Council for Licensed Conveyancers (CLC) said it saw “significant benefits” in the LSB exploiting a convening role “to develop consensus approaches wherever possible”.

The LSB “should concentrate on those areas where there is a need for LSB convening power to push the agenda in areas that perhaps are not already being led elsewhere”.

The CLC said it was “very concerned that there is no clear plan to reduce the cost of complaints handling following the eradication of the backlog at the Legal Ombudsman (LeO)”.

The Law Society’s response agreed that the business plan should have “a stronger focus on the LSB’s core statutory functions under the Legal Services Act 2007”, including publishing “robust evidence of effective regulatory performance” at LeO.

Lubna Shuja, president of the society, said the LSB’s continued focus on diversity aligned with its priorities.

She added: “Many of the LSB’s proposed workstreams – innovation, technology, market surveillance and consumer vulnerability – are already being carried out by regulators and the profession.

“We encourage the LSB to focus on adding value and to avoid duplication of costs in the current economic climate.”

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