Rachel Cairnes, policy and public affairs adviser at the Association of Consumer Support Organisations (ACSO), responded to the Legal Service Board (LSB) call for evidence on 'Ongoing competence'. The call for evidence is part of the LSB project on understanding current approaches to assuring competence and to gain clarity on whether there are any gaps in the system or areas of concern that need to be addressed.
The response focused upon the changing landscape of the legal services sector owing to the pace of disruptive innovations, and stressed that further research is required to understand what skills and knowledge will be needed by legal professionals as the market continues to evolve.
However, in line with the findings of the 2016 Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) review into legal services, it is essential that consumers are provided with a greater quantity and quality of information on the competency of legal services. Transparency and openness enable consumers to make informed decisions on which firms are best suited for their circumstances, thereby increasing consumer empowerment and access to justice.
"Regulation is an important aspect of ensuring professional competence; it services the public by ensuring quality and, in turn, protects consumers. However, according to a recent report by the Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP), only 22 per cent of consumers know their provider is regulated and only 12 per cent are aware they are able to raise a complaint to the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) service. This may highlight the failure of firms to communicate to consumers that they are regulated by the relevant bodies, alongside the failure of regulators to explain their role adequately. This issue is related to a far larger and more systematic issue within the legal sector. As identified within the influential 2016 report by the Competition and Market Authority (CMA), “the legal services sector is characterised by incomplete or asymmetric information. Consumers are often unable to judge quality before (or sometimes even after) they choose to buy a legal service."
"The marketplace is intended to regulate the competence of legal services and the client selects and rejects a legal service accordingly. However, it is essential that consumers are provided with sufficient data and information on the quality of legal services. Providing consumers with a greater quantity and quality of data enables them to make better-informed decisions on which legal service provider to use. In addition, greater transparency benefits the firms and the wider sector by promoting best practice and enabling the identification of common or systemic issues. Further research is required on what data is most useful for consumers and how best to collate and present information. In light of this, ACSO urges the LSB to work with a broad range of industry stakeholders to help consumers understand what to expect from the legal services sector, what protections are in place, and to allow flexibility for the sector to grow and innovate.
"As noted by the SRA, incompetency and poor-quality legal advice can cause significant harm to consumers, with the potential to disrupt their lives, liberty and finances. For example, a solicitor who delivers poor legal advice could lead to their client receiving a custodial sentence, losing access to their children, or being denied of the compensation they merit following an injury. Furthermore, poor legal advice serves to tarnish the reputation of legal professionals whom, as noted in a 2019 Ipsos MORI report, are already deemed to be largely untrustworthy. This has the potential to cause additional harm in the long-term to consumers by lowering both legal confidence and the number of people who believe justice is easily accessible."