Self-importance is preventing legal services reform

25 June 2020

Self-importance is preventing legal services reform

A single regulator would improve access to justice for all but there is resistance to change in establishment quarters

Chris Bones

The Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated just how much the provision of legal services is in need of reform.

It has served to magnify the inadequacies of legal representation for many. The most vulnerable and disadvantaged sections of the public are not able to access affordable and effective legal services at a time of increasing need in areas such as employment law advice, help with housing problems, power of attorney or drafting wills.

Despite significant reforms in the past 15 years that were aimed at the establishment of a more open legal services market, we maintain a 19th-century model of a tiered profession.

Against that backdrop, a report released this month by Stephen Mayson, of University College London, merits support from all those who want to see a legal services market that is open to full competition and that, as a result, benefits the widest cross section of consumers and improves access to justice for all.

In many ways the ambitions for legal services reforms in the early part of the century remain undelivered and the heart of the Mayson proposals — the move to a single regulator for all providers regardless of whether they are legally qualified — represents the key to their completion.

In the Mayson model, regulation will be differentiated by the degree of risk to the public interest of the work undertaken, not by ease of access to legal representation.

Activity-based regulation is a reform that is long overdue and Professor Mayson’s approach would see legal services opened to a wider range of service providers, broadening the options available, creating a more diverse and dynamic market and enhancing consumer choice.

Unsurprisingly, the Bar Council and the Law Society, the bodies that represent most lawyers in England and Wales, are pushing back hard against the possibility of change.

Yet this is not the moment for narrow sectional interest to trump the need to complete the work to achieve shared goals of equity of access to justice and effective legal redress.

It is inappropriate in a modern society to insist on professional differentiation based on whether a lawyer has qualified through academic study or through learning on the job. The impact of persisting with that approach stretches far beyond intraprofessional jealousies; it excludes those from diverse social backgrounds and ethnic communities from being able to practise, despite being every bit as able as their differently qualified equivalents.

In welcoming these proposals for reform, legal executives recognise that there is far more to be gained for society as a whole from engaging constructively with these new and important proposals than will be lost in terms of perceived self-importance.

Chris Bones is chairman of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, which represents 20,000 lawyers in England and Wales.

This article first appeared on The Times – Law on 25/06/20