Lawyers call for more clarity in draft Legal Services Bill

16 Jun 2006

The draft Legal Services Bill risks causing more confusion amongst the public unless it is significantly tightened up, claims the campaigning family law group Resolution.

"The Government rightly wanted to create a more consumer focused system of regulation for legal services. While we agree with that aim, we believe the proposed structure will create a very complex landscape which consumers will find as confusing as the existing system: creating a new regulatory maze," warns Resolution chairman Andrew Greensmith, whose organisation represents 5000 family lawyers in England and Wales.

In its formal response to the draft bill, Resolution has welcome many aspects of the proposals, but says other areas require a serious rethink. Resolution is concerned that this bill goes too far, too fast and that consumers will lose out.

"The 'opening up' of the legal services market to create alternative business structures should be implemented in a cautious, stepped approach because this is new territory for the profession and the public.

"There must be much more detail on the face of the bill, otherwise there is a danger that the new Legal Services Board will have untrammelled and unchallengeable powers.

"There must be a clear definition of what constitutes regulatory activities. The new Legal Services Board must be genuinely independent; they should be appointed by the commissioner for public appointments, not by government ministers".

Whilst welcoming the regulatory objectives of the bill, Resolution says that the current draft does not go far enough. "It is vital that we have a fully independent legal profession which can act in the best interests of its clients without fear or favour. Clause one of the bill must spell out that principle. As it stands, it doesn't," says Greensmith.

"There is no clear definition of what constitutes regulatory activities. We believe that this is essential. A lack of clarity over what constitutes regulatory activities, and what is representation or non-regulatory activity, may result in some organisations like Resolution being caught unintentionally within the regulatory framework. We have concerns about the place of Resolution and other voluntary legal associations in the future landscape of legal services and about the potential "knock-on" effects of the bill, as it stands."

Resolution supports the continuing representative function of the Law Society, which it sees as vital in representing the interests of the profession and its clients as a whole.

"At the same time," says Andrew Greensmith, "We would want to see a more defined and enhanced role for legal associations in the new regulatory framework. This role should be defined in statute.

"We welcome legislation that enables the Legal Services Board to recognise independent legal associations and to have a formal relationship with them. This is important, because many legal associations have a role in setting standards for their members, and for the particular branch of the profession they represent, with clear benefits for the public."