High Street shops and supermarkets in England and Wales will be permitted to sell legal services within two years, a regulatory body has said.

The Legal Services Board said it would be working to see a framework in place by the middle of 2011.

Research suggesting anti-competitive practices in the industry prompted reforms in the Legal Services Act 2007.

Critics have described the proposals as "Tesco Law" and claim it will undermine the quality of advice.

Legislation and regulation has restricted the management, ownership and financing of firms providing legal services for hundreds of years.

Currently, solicitors and barristers' chambers are owned by the lawyers themselves under partnerships.

More outsourcing?

The LSB said in future providers, including large retail brands, could seek a licence to offer legal services.

LSB chairman David Edmonds said: "It offers benefits to consumers of legal services, be they private individuals, small businesses or large companies.

"More competition will be good for the legal services sector as it has been in other sectors."

Under the proposals, joint accountancy and legal companies could also be set up and law firms will be able to list on the stock exchange.

The LSB's consultation paper acknowledges the changes could lead to more outsourcing of legal services overseas and to more advice being given over the phone and through internet sites.

But the move has come under attack from some lawyers, including a coalition of about 100 firms.

Barrister Craig Holt, chief executive of the QualitySolicitors.Com grouping, said the move "demonstrates utter contempt for the consumer of legal services".

"The solicitor profession faces being all but wiped out by a government seemingly intent on robbing the public of access to good quality, local legal advice," he said. 

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