Monday 11 June 2012 by Paul Rogerson
'Clumsy' intervention by regulators to ensure quality could stymie the development of innovative legal services, the Law Society has warned. Regulatory action should be used as a 'tool of last resort' in this regard, so firms are free to develop new ways of serving clients, it says.
Chancery Lane was responding to a discussion document from the Legal Services Board on attitudes to quality in the marketplace. This asked for comments on the extent to which the board should prescribe action by regulators to address quality.
Clients are entitled to receive a standard of service from solicitors that provides competent and ethical advice, and service that meets their needs, the Society stresses. This advice and service should be delivered promptly and courteously, and with clarity about fees - requirements that are enshrined in The SRA Handbook.
However, the Society points out that there are more intangible and subjective aspects to quality. For example, consumers may choose different levels of expertise according to their perceptions of likely quality and affordability. The same is true for perceived levels of service, it adds: 'We do not believe… choices should be fettered and we believe that the market should be able to deliver different ways of providing services provided they meet the basic quality of service appropriate to that client.'
Chancery Lane instead looks to the market, voluntary accreditation schemes and work by professional bodies to ensure quality. And it goes on to warn against simplistic approaches to defining needs, such as grouping consumer groups in crude demographic terms, like 'single parents' or 'the elderly'.
'The elderly are sometimes described as a vulnerable group but this is simplistic and can be patronising,' the Society says. 'There are many judges of the Senior Courts who could be classified as elderly. In many ways the elderly as a cohort are among the most robust and realistic of clients through their life experience.'
Chancery Lane also points up the 'significant difficulties' that arise in measuring the performance of different providers. In litigation work, for example, success in achieving a client's aims is rarely a useful indicator and can actually be dangerous: a lawyer has no control over the strength of the client's case and would thereby also be subject to 'unconscionable tensions' on duties to the justice system which overriding those to the client.
The Society also reiterates its 'strong reservations' about the Legal Services Ombudsman's publication of complaints data, which it says may prove 'more misleading than helpful'.
On comparison websites, the Society warns that these are open to abuse and suggests it may be appropriate for the professional bodies themselves to produce and moderate 'reliable' sites.