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Legal services buyers facing ‘web of inconsistencies’

25 January 2019

Consumer champion urges LSB to press regulators for full compliance with disciplinary record requirements

Consumers looking to find out about lawyers’ disciplinary records currently face “a complicated web of inconsistencies”, the chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel has said as she called on the Legal Services Board to compel frontline regulators to be more transparent about adverse enforcement outcomes.

Sarah Chambers (pictured) made the comments in a blog post following last week’s report by the LSB on the performance of frontline regulators. Most regulators, the report found, including the Solicitors Regulation Authority, failed to maintain adequate records of disciplinary sanctions in their official registers.

“Making enforcement data available to consumers is an area that will particularly benefit from consistency in approach,” Chambers said. “It is even more urgent at a time when the flagship consumer-facing website ‘Legal Choices’ is being redeveloped. That site plans to link consumers to disciplinary records. As it stands, consumers will find a complicated web of inconsistencies.”

The LSB has pledged to work with frontline regulators on how they could improve their performance through regular contact, but Chambers suggests this doesn’t go far enough.

“Given that this non-compliance has been an ongoing concern, we expect the LSB to escalate its planned response beyond an initial conversation with individual CEOs and Chairs”, she said. Chambers also acknowledged that the LSB has limited means, Chambers was unimpressed by the lack of progress.

“The LSB says it is choosing this option because it is ‘less onerous for both the LSB and regulatory bodies’,” she comments, “but if the situation does not seem to be improving, does that indicate the conversations are not working? Could the regulators benefit from a thorough review and analysis of transparency around sanctions now rather than later?”

Chambers also criticised the LSB for being too lenient on smaller regulators, especially the Costs Lawyers Standards Board (CLSB), which appeared to have “more work to do than others”. While the panel chair welcomed the performance improvement plan drawn up in response by the LSB, she also queried the super-regulator’s apparent lack of decisiveness.

“The timescales for improvement reflect the serious nature of the shortcomings,” she said. “But even so, the situation with the CLSB calls into question the continued existence of regulators whose competence is found wanting. At what point should the LSB begin to call into question a regulator’s fitness to regulate?”

Chambers accepted that larger regulators such as the Solicitors Regulation Authority had “more consumer reach”, which justified the LSB prioritising its resources accordingly. Nevertheless, she went on, “the regulated communities of smaller regulatory bodies are not always small, and failures could have significant impact on users of their services and on wider market confidence.”

But there was also support for the LSB’s new “directive approach” which Chambers said “may well signal a welcome move towards tackling regulatory shortcomings more robustly”, along with “a significant shift away from giving smaller regulators unmerited leeway where evidence suggests that they aren’t delivering on their statutory objectives”. There was pointed encouragement too, that the oversight regulator, as a result of its findings, “has started to consider options for remedial action beyond those stipulated in the report, including calling into question the position of the small regulator in the market and the stability of the market should it fail.”

The panel first raised concerns about inconsistencies in relation to disciplinary record keeping in 2016. In its Open Data in Legal Services report, the panel said consumers had the right to know about the shortcomings of the firms with whom they deal. It also argued that there should be a presumption that all enforcement data would be published at the end of an investigation that leads to a sanction.

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Legal Services Board LSB Legal Services Consumer Panel Sarah Chambers regulatory records disciplinary records