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Scottish Parliament urged by Consumer bodies ‘to put public interest first’ in Legal Services Bill vote & reject Law Society ‘anti-consumer-choice’ amendments

05 Oct

Debating chamberHolyrood will debate & vote on the Legal Services Bill on Wednesday 6th October 2010. CONSUMER ORGANISATIONS in Scotland & across the UK have today urged the Scottish Parliament’s MSPs to widen choice for users of legal services by passing the Legal Services Bill, and to reject amendments mostly demanded by the Law Society of Scotland & the legal profession’s current roll of vested interests that would change the current ownership provisions and fundamentally dilute the legislation’s potential impact on the legal services market, the aims of which are to expand Scots consumers access to justice & quality legal services as is being implemented in England & Wales through equivalent UK legislation.

As I reported earlier today, the Legal Services Bill originates from proposals originally put forward by UK consumer organisation Which? and the Office of Fair Trading’s subsequent recommendations to break open the monopolistic Scottish legal services market which has long been dominated by solicitors & advocates. The Law Society of Scotland has continually demanded changes to the legislation which would hand control of the legal services market back to the Society as an ‘approved regulator’, which I reported on earlier, HERE

Consumer Focus Scotland logoConsumer Focus Scotland urges MSPs to pass the Legal Services Bill and reject amendments from ‘vested interests’. Speaking in advance of Wednesday’s Scottish Parliament debate on the Legal Services (Scotland) Bill at Stage 3, Marieke Dwarshuis, Director of Consumer Focus Scotland, said: “Throughout the Parliament’s consideration of this Bill, the arguments in favour of widening choice and protection for users of legal services and increasing access to justice have often been overshadowed by the interests of the legal profession.

Mr Dwarshuis continued : “We are confident that the alternative business structures the Bill will permit legal firms to pursue will support the development of a more open, innovative and competitive legal services market in Scotland, which better meets the needs of those using legal services. The Bill will also increase access to justice, by allowing advice agencies to employ solicitors directly, and will protect consumers who use currently unregulated will writing services.

Mr Dwarshuis concluded urging MSPs to pass the bill, saying : “For these reasons we are urging MSPs to widen choice for users of legal services by passing the Bill, and to reject amendments that would change the current ownership provisions and fundamentally dilute the legislation’s potential impact on the legal services market.”

Which logoWhich? began the road to legal services reform in Scotland with their supercomplaint to the OFT over Law Society monopoly of the Scots closed shop legal services market. Consumer group Which? who were responsible for the supercomplaint to the Office of Fair Trading which began the long process to overhaul competition in the Scottish legal services marketplace also issued a plea to the Scottish Parliament ahead of its vote tomorrow, its chief executive, Peter Vicary-Smith, commenting : “Since the launch of our supercomplaint in May 2007, Which? has campaigned for the opening up of legal services to provide more competition and better services for the public in Scotland. Too often the debate has been dominated by the interests of the legal profession when it should have been about the best interests of the public.

Mr Vicary-Smith urged MSPS to put the interests of the public first, saying : “The Legal Services Bill debate tomorrow must be about the public deserving and receiving the best and most effective provision of legal services for the future. That cannot happen without the legal profession being allowed to modernise. ‘We urge MSPs to put the interest of the public first and vote through the Legal Services Bill.”

Consumer Focus Scotland also issued a statement on their view regarding ‘approved regulators’ which are to be appointed by the Scottish Government to regulate current & new entrants to the expanded legal services market if the bill becomes law.

The unwelcome prospect of the Law Society of Scotland being made an ‘approved regulator’, has caused many (including myself) to suspect having the Law Society again regulate complaints involving legal services will bring the same infamous historical problems regarding regulation & consumer protection against poor legal services in Scotland as Scots consumers have always had to bear when attempting to gain a fair hearing of complaints against the legal profession.

A spokesperson for Consumer Focus Scotland gave its view on approved regulators :

“The key principle that must underpin the bill is that users of legal services must have the same level of protection whatever legal services provider they use. We believe it is crucial that all regulators of legal services apply high standards of regulation. For example, we are pleased that a policy of proactive regulation is to be adopted for licensed legal services providers. It is in the interests of consumers that regular checks are undertaken to ensure licensed providers are acting in a way which is compatible with the regulatory objectives, rather than waiting until a consumer has been adversely affected before taking action. We believe the principle of proactive regulation should also be applied to regulation of traditional forms of practice to ensure consumers can be confident of the consistency of approach to the regulation of legal services, whatever type of provider they access.”

“As regards any specific potential regulators, we did not support the inclusion of section 7(4)(a)(i) of the Bill, which allows authorisation to act as a regulator of licensed legal services providers to be awarded without limit of time. We believe it is necessary to have in place a robust procedure to review the authorisation of a regulator of licensed legal services, including reviewing how their regulatory scheme adheres to and applies the regulatory objectives and obligations.”

“We were disappointed that the Bill does not contain provision for establishing an advisory panel to advise Ministers on applications for authorisation to act as an approved regulator and to keep the regulatory framework under review. We stated in our response to the ‘Wider Choice and Better Protection’ consultation that establishing an advisory panel was a necessary safeguard, given the potential for a regulatory body to have the dual or multiple responsibilities for regulating a licensed legal services provider, regulating individual professionals and promoting the interests of the public and the profession. Such a panel could also play an important role in monitoring the regulator body’s performance against the regulatory objectives. We suggested that as with the Consumer Panel in England and Wales, this panel should be made up entirely of non-lawyers and should include representation of the consumer interest.”

Video coverage of key points of testimony on the Legal Services Bill to the Justice Committee by the legal profession and consumer groups, can be viewed in my earlier reports listed below or at InjusticeTV & LawyerTV

Readers can view my report of the Law Society of Scotland’s testimony on the Legal Services Bill to the Scottish Parliament, here : Little mention of consumer protection for Scots as Law Society give evidence to Holyrood on Legal Services Bill reforms

Earlier coverage of the OFT & Which? testimony on the Legal Services Bill to the Scottish Parliament is available here : OFT & Which? call for independent regulation of lawyers as Justice Committee hears evidence on Legal Services Bill

Earlier coverage of the Faculty of Advocates, Society of Solicitor Advocates & Professor Alan Paterson’s testimony on the Legal Services Bill to the Scottish Parliament is available here : Holyrood’s Justice Committee hears of doubts & criticisms from Law Professor & Faculty of Advocates on Legal Services Bill reforms

Earlier coverage of Consumer Focus Scotland & the UNITE union’s testimony on the Legal Services Bill to the Scottish Parliament is available here : Legal Services Bill : Consumer Focus & UNITE union differ over access to justice proposals as ‘Tesco Law’ comes under the Holyrood microscope

You can read my full coverage of the progress of the Legal Services Bill here : Legal Services Bill for Scotland – The story so far and decide for yourselves how much the Scottish Government’s proposals for improving access to justice will really improve YOUR access to justice.

Consumers will benefit to a degree if the Legal Services Bill is passed and will benefit a whole lot more if many of the amendments demanded by the Law Society of Scotland & vested interests are rejected …. indeed .. MSPs should put the public interest first during tomorrow’s vote on the Legal Services Bill.

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