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Legal Ombudsman moving to name & shame crooked lawyers in England & Wales, crooked Scottish solicitors records to remain protected by secrecy for now

Legal OmbudsmanConsumers in England & Wales may expect to find out which lawyers & law firms are crooked while Scots will not. AS DEMANDS GROW for increased consumer protection against poor legal services throughout the UK with the public identification of poorly performing solicitors & law firms to enable consumers to better & more safely chose their legal representatives, the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) has now published the responses to its latest consultation on the subject of an evidence based approach to publishing complaints decisions involving ‘crooked lawyers’.

While consumer groups & organisations in England & Wales as well as the UK Government are hugely supportive of the LeO’s eventual move to name & shame crooked lawyers, the legal profession south of the border in the form of the Law Society of England & Wales, law firms & solicitors groups are against the move, citing a number of reasons solicitors generally prefer the public not to know which lawyers are more crooked than others or the exposure of those in the legal profession who have complaints lists a mile & a half long.

adam_sampsonLegal Ombudsman for England & Wales, Adam Sampson.While some of the consumer community have viewed this latest consultation as a delaying move due to concerns over what action the legal profession may take against the LeO if naming & shaming had been implemented earlier this year, Legal Ombudsman Adam Sampson, writing in the Law Gazette on the subject of naming & shaming rogue lawyers & law firms in England & Wales, said : “There is a general belief, though, on all sides that the public has a right to know about firms which genuinely pose a threat to them, either because they have done something awful or have accumulated a large number of complaints, and that these firms should be named; good lawyers can only benefit from the bad ones being known.

“The real problem here is that, in the area of complaints, the usual binary judgements which the law encourages do not apply. Lawyers want us to arrive at a guilty or innocent verdict, to uphold or dismiss complaints. That is difficult. In many cases, even where the complaint is founded on a real error on the part of the firm, the problem is not as great as the complainant thinks it is or the impact as profound.”

“Conversely, even when the complaint does not seem to be rooted in any obvious piece of poor service, it is rarely the case when people complain to us that there is absolutely no ­reason for them to be upset. There is usually something which one can spot as a root cause: even if the service provided was exemplary, as it in many cases is, you can usually see points where the lawyer could have done more to manage the client’s expectations or deal more sensitively with their initial complaint.”

“… sorting lawyers into two categories – those to be named and those to be given the cloak of anonymity – is not easy. The debate goes beyond the legal sector. We are also conscious of the pressure elsewhere from the government, and the pressure on the Financial Ombudsman Service in respect of banks and financial advisers, for example, to move rapidly towards complete openness. We are very conscious, though, of the particular nature of the legal ­market and the issues facing so many more traditional firms.”

“But we are not standing still. The consultations may not have fully resolved the naming issue, but they did enable us to agree and start publishing other details of our work. We have begun to publish data about the sorts of complaints we receive…”

“And, more recently, from the beginning of July we began to publish anonymised summaries of all ombudsman decisions we have made. These decisions are on our website for anyone who wants to see them and we hope, in time, to make them searchable, so that you can begin to build a picture of the patterns of decision-making and the sorts of remedies we order in particular sorts of cases. It is all there. Just not the names.”

Case decisions by the Legal Ombudsman can be viewed online here : Ombudsman decisions and cases on which the Legal Ombudsman has helped resolve informally can be viewed here : On the Case with the Legal Ombudsman. It should be noted these cases apply to England & Wales only.

No such information as is currently published by the LeO is available to Scottish consumers of legal services due to the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission’s refusal to publish decisions or case related information due to the legal profession’s insistence on complete confidentiality in Scotland.

While the Legal Ombudsman moves ahead on the question of publication of complaints, no equivalent consultation on naming & shaming Scottish solicitors has been held by the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, who have already refused to comment on the issue or get involved in any moves to name & shame crooked lawyers in Scotland.

Which logoAsked for views on the LeO’s plans to publish complaints details & name poorly performing solicitors, consumer group Which? stated in their response (pdf) : “As outlined in our December 2010 ‘Publishing our Decisions’ consultation response, Which? believes the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) should seek to be wholly transparent.This means it should publish as much information as possible and this should include, in some circumstances, publication of the name of legal firms and individual lawyers. We agree with LeO’s conclusion that the concerns expressed about publishing complaints data are overstated. We believe that a more comprehensive publication policy could be implemented earlier than at some point in 2012 and suggest April 2012 as a clear target date for implementation of LeO’s publication policy.”

Factors which are relevant to publication also include:

a) the nature of the work undertaken;
b) whether the complaint was resolved informally after reference to LeO;
c) the number of active clients the firm has to give a ratio of complaints to number of clients; and
d) the firms where LeO investigates the complaint and a finding is made for the firm or the complaint is dismissed and the firm exonerated.
e) the size of the firm in terms of number of partners and turnover.

In addition, the search functionality for the published data should be easy to use and results presented in such a way as to ensure that there is no risk of the data being misinterpreted.  The search functionality should be intuitive and the search options should be expressed in plain English.  It should also be free to access.

On 13th April 2011, the Cabinet Office and Department of Business, Innovation and Skills published a paper titled ‘Better Choices: Better Deals.  Consumers Powering Growth’.  Among other recommendations, it concluded that there should be an ‘expectation that regulators, government departments, regulated businesses and public service providers will release the complaints and performance data they own unless they have good reason not to do so’.

This expectation means that LeO will have to adopt a policy of identifying individual law firms in the circumstances set out in their publication policy.  Which? agrees with and endorses this approach as the default position.

oftThe Office of Fair Trading (OFT) stated in its submission (pdf) to the LeO : “We appreciate that you need to balance the interests of consumers with the reputational impact on firms and individual lawyers. However, the OFT remains firmly of the view that  the publication of named complaints data could incentivise legal service providers, due to reputational considerations, to maintain and/or improve the quality of service they provide to consumers.We believe that essential data would include:

* The number of complaints made against individual firms and lawyers;
* The nature of those complaints and placing them into categories to help see if a pattern develops;
* The ratio of complaints upheld against an individual firm or lawyer;
* Areas of law where complaints tend to focus;
* Which aspects of service the complaints tend to focus; and
* Whether the complaints tend to come from private or publically funded cases.

Legal Services Consumer PanelDr Dianne Hayter, Chairman of the Legal Services Consumer Panel, an organisation which represents the best interests of legal services users in England & Wales, and notably has NO EQUIVALENT in Scotland, stated in the Legal Services Consumer panel response (pdf) to the LeO on naming & shaming : “The Consumer Panel is of the firm view that all consumers have a right to know whether the provider with whom they are thinking of engaging to help them resolve their important legal matter has a poor complaints track record. The Legal Ombudsman will have a heavy conscience if consumers suffer serious detriment which could have been avoided.”

Dr Hayter continued : “The risk that a high number of complaints in social welfare law would harm firms‟ ability to attract more work in other areas, such as conveyancing, could be easily managed by effective presentation of the data. The research suggests that consumers would use complaints data to help them make choices between competing providers. In order to facilitate this, the Legal Ombudsman should organise data by legal activity. In this scenario, consumers would be able to compare complaint volumes for one field of law across the different providers they are considering. The Financial Ombudsman Services enables such comparisons and we see no reason why the Legal Ombudsman cannot do so.”

lawsoc_eng_walesLaw Society of England & Wales disagree on naming & shaming rogue solicitors. Expectedly, the Law Society of England & Wales protested against the effort to publish the names of rogue solicitors & crooked law firms, stating in its submission : “We do not believe that publishing firms’ complaints records  will improve complaints handling or provide clients with useful information which will allow them to make an informed choice about which legal service provider to use.”

However, the Law Society of England & Wales did respond to earlier enquiries from Diary of Injustice, revealing the numbers of solicitors convicted of criminal offences in England & Wales, information which is not available in Scotland. This was featured on Diary of Injustice in May 2009, here : Criminal records of lawyers : Scots public kept in dark over convictions while England & Wales get ‘right to know’

SLCC MacAskillWimped out : Kenny MacAskill’s Scottish Legal Complaints Commission has refused to hold consultations on moves to name & shame crooked Scottish lawyers. For now, Scots consumers of legal services are to be left in the dark over their choice of lawyer, as the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission and the Scottish Government do not support the naming & shaming of crooks within the Scottish legal profession. One SLCC insider said he felt the anti-client law complaints quango would never name or shame any rogue lawyers under what he called “its current profession friendly approach to dealing with consumer complaints”.

Clearly there is an imbalance in the rights of consumers of legal services in Scotland, where in England & Wales, all consumer groups and even the Westminster Government support naming & shaming rogue solicitors and their law firms. Why is Scotland being left out once again on consumer protection against our historically poor, crooked, yet expensive legal services market ?

All submissions to the Legal Ombudsman for England & Wales consultation on “Publishing our decisions: an evidence based approach feedback” can be viewed at the following links :

Association Women Solicitors response
Bar Standards Board response
Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys and the Institute of Trade Marks Attorneys response
City of Westminster & Holborn Law Society response
Costs Lawyer Standards Board response
Dean Conrad response
Forum of Insurance Lawyers response
General Council of the Bar response
Institute of Legal Executives response
Irwin Mitchell Solicitors response
ILEX Professional Standards Limited response
The Law Society response
Legal Services Commission response
Legal Services Conumer panel response
Manchester Law Society email response
Media Lawyers Association response
National Consumer Federation response
NewLaw Solicitors email response
Office of Fair Trading response
Which response

 

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Bitter blow for Scots & access to justice reforms as Tory-LibDem coalition scraps Scottish consumer champion Consumer Focus Scotland

Consumer Focus Scotland logoScots consumer champion Consumer Focus Scotland axed by London Government. SCOTS CONSUMERS suffered a bitter blow today at the hands of the Westminster Conservative-LibDem coalition Government as it was announced Consumer Focus Scotland and its parent organisation Consumer Focus are being scrapped as part of the ‘savings drive’ to abolish ‘quangos’ which has so far only affected 200 out of 900 ‘Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisations’ & other statutory bodies reviewed for closure, with at least 380 apparently being retained.

The announcement of the spending cuts caused the Cabinet Office’s website to temporarily crash, however the list of publicly funded bodies is now available HERE (pdf). The entry for Consumer Focus reads : “No longer an NDPB – Government will consider the outcome of ongoing sectoral reviews and consult early next year on proposals to abolish Consumer Focus and transfer its function to Citizens Advice.”. The Taxpayers Alliance are left to gloat now their demand Consumer Focus be axed, has come true.

Douglas-SinclairDouglas Sinclair, Chairman of Consumer Focus Scotland. Responding to the announcement by the UK Government today, Douglas Sinclair, Chair of Consumer Focus Scotland, said : “Consumer Focus, and Consumer Focus Scotland have achieved a huge amount for consumers. In the last few months alone Consumer Focus has obtained a £70 million pound energy bill refund for consumers across the UK and in Scotland the passage of the Legal Services (Scotland) Bill has meant the culmination of Consumer Focus Scotland’s campaign to widen choice and protection for users of legal services, and we played a key role in the establishment of the Post Office Challenge Fund.”

Mr Sinclair continued : “The UK Government has decided to transfer at least some of our functions to Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland. I am immensely proud of what we have achieved. The issue now is not who does the work but that the work is done at a time when consumers are facing difficult economic circumstances, especially those who are vulnerable and whom we have a particular duty to protect.”

“What matters now is that the transfer happens in a way that works in consumers’ interests. We will be working with the UK and Scottish Government to do this in the best possible way in the interest of consumers in Scotland. The expertise and knowledge that has enabled us to fight for consumers must not be lost. Changes must not be at the expense of the public’s rights and needs – which organisations like Consumer Focus Scotland were created to protect.”

The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) is also being scrapped, its competition functions merged with the Competition Commission along with a transfer of its consumer and enforcement functions. High-profile consumer right challenges in the future will be mounted by underfunded local trading standards officers – I don’t think so.

BBC News reported on the quango cuts saying Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude had told MPs money would be saved by axing the quangos, saying the main reason for the cull had always been to improve accountability, by having decisions taken by ministers and local authorities where possible.

Consumer group Which?, who will remain as one of the few remaining consumer protection organisations said today the shakeup of the consumer landscape with the scrapping of Consumer Focus must not leave consumers exposed.

Peter Vicary SmithWhich? CEO Peter Vicary-Smith. Which? Chief Executive, Peter Vicary-Smith commenting on the axing of Consumer Focus & other consumer bodies said : “It’s vital that front line advice and enforcement services are maintained, so we’re pleased that Trading Standards and Citizens’ Advice have survived the cull. Which? is talking to the Government about how it can help with providing extra support to consumers in the new regime and continue to do so without taking Government money.”

He continued : “These changes also raise questions about moving responsibility for national enforcement to dedicated individual Trading Standards authorities. How will a local Trading Standards have the resources or the expertise to take on national companies such as the big banks, the airlines and the supermarkets?

“The merger of the Competition Commission offers the opportunity to strengthen competition regulation in the UK, but this will only happen if the new body is given the resources it needs to match its task and police markets effectively.”

Perth based law reform campaigner Stewart MacKenzie, author of Petition 1247 – the McKenzie Friend petition which brought about one of the most significant changes in Scots courts for decades and won him the Which? Consumer Champion award for 2010 condemned today’s decision to scrap Consumer Focus Scotland.

Mr MacKenzie said : “’Consumer Focus have done incredible, important work since they were formed 2 years ago, as did their predecessor, the Scottish Consumer Council over many, many years. This is a shattering blow and I can only hope there is a route yet available which may be able to stop this happening and that is why I’ve asked my msp John Swinney to get the First Minister involved in this matter.”

The Scottish Government were asked for comment on today’s blow against Scots consumers. Their statement will appear here if one is issued.

This is of course, a bad day for Scots. No matter how this disgraceful decision is spun, Consumer protection in Scotland will suffer with the loss of Consumer Focus Scotland. Good people and a lot of valuable experience centralised in a well respected national coherent body have been thrown out under the guise of saving money, when in reality it will cost consumers in Scotland and across the country, dearly.

The plan by the Westminster Government, apparently, is to hand over Consumer Focus Scotland’s duties to Citizens Advice Scotland and the many uncoordinated local Trading Standards teams scattered across the regions who themselves are now subject to huge cuts in local authority spending. From experience in dealing with CAB/CAS & local Trading Standards outfits in Scotland, these organisations will have to up their game considerably if they are to match the effective, coordinated campaigning by the Scottish Consumer Council and its successor, Consumer Focus Scotland who served all of us in Scotland so very well over many years.

From the beginnings of my dealings with the Scottish Consumer Council in the mid 1990’s, during its leadership by Derdrie Hutton, DBE, to its current form as Consumer Focus Scotland, I can safely say they have always been a beneficial & much-listened-to voice for change, in the many areas of consumer interest & protection in Scotland, especially those issues on which I report including civil justice reform, regulation of the legal profession & access to justice.

Sadly in 2010, I am now reporting this much valued voice and effort on the part of Scots consumers is to be lost in this very anti-consumer move by the coalition Government in London.

 

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Consumer Action Group statement on UK Government’s planned abolition of Consumer Focus, Consumer Direct & OFT

Consumer Focus Scotland logoScots Consumer Champion Consumer Focus Scotland ‘stabbed in the back by Taxpayers Alliance’. CONTINUING my coverage on the possibly imminent demise of Consumer Focus & Consumer Focus Scotland at the hands of the Taxpayers Alliance with their campaign “Scrap Consumer Focus”, along with the scrapping of Consumer Direct & the Office of Fair Trading, the Consumer Action Group, a UK organisation which campaigns for customer rights, particularly for the recovery of unfair charges imposed by UK banks on their customers has issued a statement on their website regarding the impact on consumers of the loss of most of the consumer protection currently in existence in the UK.

Given the prospect of a distinct lack of consumer protection being forced upon us by right wing political interest groups, I would urge consumers who value their consumer rights & protections to read up on the Consumer Action Group and join in the group’s efforts to truly represent & campaign for UK consumers.

CAGConsumer Action Group’s statement on the demise of Consumer Focus, Consumer Direct & the OFT : It seems that Consumer Focus, Consumer Direct and the OFT are likely to be abolished in an announcement to be made later next week. This is an astonishing piece of bad news for consumer rights. It will bring further difficulty to the lives of millions of ordinary citizens throughout the country. It will gladden the hearts of financial institutions and retailers of goods and services everywhere as they take the opportunity to reduce spending on customer service. It will also increase opportunities and incentives to scam innocent customers.

Is this what David Cameron means by his “Big Society”? The removal of all protections from his trusting electorate so that corporate jackals are free to prey on vulnerable victims. Who will be left to protect them? Well apparently the government proposes that consumers will have to rely on Trading Standards and on Citizen’s Advice. Will there be additional funding and will the funding be enough? Probably not.

Are Trading Standards and Citizen’s Advice up to the job? Are they suitable? Citizen’s Advice is a very decent organisation but they certainly don’t have a reputation for assisting consumers to challenge companies which try to deprive them of their rights. This is unlikely to change because it would mean that the entire mindset of Citizen’s Advice would need to be altered.

What about Trading Standards? Well for far too long, this organisation has not been directly accessible by the public. They do not have that culture. They are a specialist organisation which is geared up to carrying out investigations of routine malpractice by commercial organisations. However, they don’t deal with the sort of one off problems nor the vast range or the number of problems experienced everyday by British consumers.

Of course, even Consumer Direct has not been known for baring its teeth and “getting the job done” – so maybe no great loss there. The OFT – well frankly they are almost an embarrassment to consumer rights – especially since their inept handling of the Bank Charges test case. In fact the main impact of the expected announcement is to confirm to us all what we have always known – You’re on your own, Mate.

So who is left?

Well it looks like it is going to be down to the websites and of course that means the likes of The Consumer Action Group and Money Saving Expert. We’ll do our best but clearly there isn’t going to be much support from the people who should give it – the government. We are the Big Society – but Cameron clearly doesn’t seem to realise that the big commercial organisations have a different game plan and it’s You, the Consumer that they intending having for their lunch.

 

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A cut too far : Coalition Government ‘turns its back’ on UK consumers as BBC reports Consumer Focus & OFT to be scrapped

Consumer Focus Scotland logoUK Consumers to be without a champion as BBC reports Consumer Focus to be scrapped. UK CONSUMERS will soon lose their greatest consumer champion according to BBC News who reported earlier today that Consumer Focus, the £6m-a-year publicly funded consumer champion for Scotland, England & Wales is to be scrapped as part of the Conservative/LibDem coalition UK Government’s soon-to-be-announced review of spending on public bodies. Also lining up to be axed in an approaching dawn firing squad is Consumer Direct & the OFT.

This is a bitter blow for consumers all across the UK, particularly in Scotland, where Consumer Focus Scotland, formed from the Scottish Consumer Council did important work for Scots consumer rights in many priority areas, especially those where few other voices or help existed for many fellow citizens trapped in our stagnant justice system as I have frequently covered over many years. As Consumer Focus Scotland receives much of its funding from London, it’s Glasgow based HQ faces an uncertain future, probably to be closed unless the Scottish Government take on the full funding cost which I cant see happening given the public service cuts being forced on us by London.

The work of the Scottish Consumer Council to quote one example out of many, has been instrumental in pushing for serious reforms to Scotland’s “Victorian” civil justice system by way of Lord Gill’s Civil Courts Review and also the SCC’s work promoting independent regulation of the legal profession. Without doubt I can say not only as a journalist but also as a law reform campaigner, the long road to reforms in the Scots justice system would not be as ‘advanced’ as they are now, had it not been for the invaluable work Consumer Focus Scotland has done for Scots consumers, albeit sometimes needing a little push here & there to keep up the pace.

Law Society of ScotlandLaw Society’s Rogue lawyers & many others will benefit from Consumer Focus being scrapped. Scrapping Consumer Focus – a national consumer champion which costs a lot less than politicians expenses, and the money thrown at shady unaccountable political ‘think-tanks’ (to mention one of a million other well deserving savings the country should be making), will ensure all the rogue traders, rip-off merchants, crooks, con artists, villains, fraudsters, & overcharging industries will have a field day, ripping off British consumers at will, all apparently at the behest of the Taxpayers Alliance, who BBC News reports “wrote to Business Secretary Vince Cable on 8 October calling for Consumer Focus to be abolished, says it duplicates work done by private organisations such as the Consumers’ Association.”

With all due respect Mr Cable, you would do well to refuse the Taxpayers Alliance on this one, and a few others too by the sounds of it.

Speaking on the BBC FOUR Radio’s Saturday MoneyBox programme, Matthew Sinclair Director of the Taxpayer’s Alliance said Consumer Focus was also too close to government to be fully effective. He said : “It does fulfil a function which is replicated in the private sector. It’s not representing consumers because it can’t speak against Government.”

Rubbish. Consumer Focus Scotland has done a terrific job for Scots consumers, as has Consumer Focus in England & Wales. Granted, Which? are a great organisation but they don’t have any statutory powers as Consumer Focus have, and there are currently no private bodies who will be fully able to take on the work of Consumer Focus Scotland. For a start, Citizens Advice (CAB) in Scotland certainly have no capability or stature to take on all of Consumer Focus Scotland’s work and in my recent experience on the McKenzie Friend campaign, I’d have to say CAB are just not up to the job.

It seems the Westminster coalition’s knives are certainly being sharpened for consumers as another target of the slash & cut review is, amazingly the Office of Fair Trading, who along with Consumer Focus & Which? have been instrumental in many consumer reforms – and had it not been for the three bodies working together in many cases, the lobbying powers of the various industries or professions ripping off consumers on a daily basis would have prevented many reforms I am now able to report on such as wider access to justice for all Scots.

BBC Radio 4’s MoneyBox is broadcast on Saturdays at 12 noon, and repeated on Sundays at 9pm. Download the podcast. The direct link to the audio file from the Saturday , 9 Oct 10 programme is here : Download 12MB (right click & “save target as”) You can listen to it in Windows Media Player or any mp3 player.

Alternatively you can listen to the audio clip below, featuring the Moneybox report on Consumer Focus and its possible closure by the UK Government : (click on image to listen)

I would recommend any consumer with an interest in what happens to their consumer rights, and the standards of service they receive from any industry or profession in the UK, downloads & listens to this programme, especially taking note of the zeal in which Mr Sinclair and the Taxpayers Alliance want to kill off what has been one of the best products of consumer protection in the United Kingdom since … well, ever.

You might represent some taxpayers on this one Mr Sinclair, but you don’t represent me.

If anyone feels like writing to Vince Cable MP, the Business Secretary, and support calls to retain Consumer Focus as one of our well deserved Consumer Champions, please email Mr Cable using the online correspondence form of his Department HERE or write to him at : Ministerial Correspondence Unit, Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, 1 Victoria Street, London SW1H 0ET.

If you value your consumer protection in this country, please write in to Mr Cable. I know I will be.

BBC News reports :

Consumer Focus faces axe in quango cull

By Paul Lewis
Presenter, Radio 4’s Money Box

Consumer Focus, the body set up by the last Government to represent consumers and challenge companies, will be scrapped, the BBC has learned.

Other consumer bodies facing abolition include the Office of Fair Trading and Consumer Direct. Their activities will be taken over by Citizens Advice and Trading Standards offices. The Government refused to confirm or deny the changes ahead of an imminent announcement on public bodies.

Speaking on Radio 4’s Money Box programme Consumer Focus chief executive Mike O’Connor, who warned his staff on Wednesday that their future was in doubt, would not confirm the move publicly. “Government has to take this decision and we wait to see what they have got to say.”

But he defended the value for money of his organisation. “We cost the taxpayer in our core grant about £6m a year. Just last week we won a return to consumers of over £70m from the energy companies. And three months ago through our super complaint we changed the ISA rules so savers will get an extra £15m a year.”

nPower has recently refunded £70m to 1.8 million customers who it had overcharged for gas in 2007. Banks will pay interest eight days earlier on ISAs that have been moved.

But the TaxPayers’ Alliance, which wrote to Business Secretary Vince Cable on 8 October calling for Consumer Focus to be abolished, says it duplicates work done by private organisations such as the Consumers’ Association.

Speaking on the programme its director Matthew Sinclair said Consumer Focus was also too close to government to be fully effective. “It does fulfil a function which is replicated in the private sector. It’s not representing consumers because it can’t speak against Government,” he said.

Mike O’Connor said that no other organisation had its powers or could be so effective. “The Consumers’ Association does not have the powers which we do. We have a vital power, we can make companies and regulators and government give us information so you may be asking people to do things but without the powers that we have.”

The BBC has also learned that Citizens Advice is being lined up to take over the activities of Consumer Direct, which offers free help over the phone to consumers who are victims of scams or want advice on their rights. The Office of Fair Trading, which took the long running but ultimately unsuccessful case over the banks’ overdraft charges, will be merged with the Competition Commission. The Government has discussed passing the OFT’s consumer activities – including court action – to trading standards departments in local authorities.

Mick McAteer, founder and Director of the Financial Inclusion Centre, told Money Box: “If you take away one of the main bodies whose tasks is to represent consumers I think you will undermine consumer protection.”

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said the report on the future of hundreds of public bodies “is likely to happen in the next couple of weeks.” She would not comment on the claims that these consumer bodies would be scrapped or merged.

 
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Posted by on October 10, 2010 in Consumer Protection, Politics

 

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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

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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Holyrood’s Justice Committee ‘to wave through’ latest Law Society proposals for Legal Services Bill as Scots consumers access to justice takes another tumble

Justice Committee Holyrood’s Justice Committee has a track record of saying YES to the Law Society. AS Holyrood’s Justice Committee prepares its Stage 3 consideration of the latest raft of amendments to the Legal Services Bill proposed by the Law Society of Scotland, consumer groups & critics contend access to justice is not expected to be significantly widened or improved by the passage of the Bill, now a weak shadow of 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.

You can read more about the Legal Services Bill at the Scottish Parliament’s website : Legal Services (Scotland) Bill: Committee page, the latest amendments lodged to the bill are here : 28 September 2010 (215KB pdf) & here : 30 September 2010 (167KB pdf)

Law Society of ScotlandThe Law Society of Scotland’s most recent media release on their latest ‘proposals’ to amend the Legal Services Bill stated : “The Society has had constructive discussions with the Government and MSPs during the summer recess about the planned reforms to legal services provision in Scotland, which would allow non-solicitors to have a stake in law firms.”. Many of these ‘constructive discussions’ however relate to the Law Society’s demands it alone remains in charge of regulation, along with added controls over claims funds to compensate consumers as a result of poor legal services, and also the Society having the final say-so on exactly who or which company can provide legal services in the resulting ‘expanded’ legal services market should the Legal Services Bill become law.

jamie_millarThe Law Society’s media release went onto quote its President, Jamie Millar, whose own law firm Lindsays is linked to a dishonest firm of Borders solicitors, said : “We have supported the general principles behind the Bill and believe that it will give solicitors new opportunity to adapt their businesses as they see fit to meet the demands of their clients. There has been a great deal of debate which has already led to substantial changes to the Bill, particularly on the percentage of ownership of legal services providers. At Stage 2, the Justice committee voted against 100% ownership and the Bill now states that there must be at least 51% ownership by solicitors and other regulated professionals.

“However there remain a few key areas where we think there should be further amendments. The legal profession has changed hugely in recent years and is much bigger, more specialist and is operating in a highly competitive, global marketplace. However even with these changes, we must ensure that clients continue to have the same level of protection, whether they seek legal advice from a traditional solicitors’ firm or an alternative business structure in the future.

Bill Aitken Justsice ConvenerJustice Committee Convener Bill Aitken MSP (Scottish Conservative) has frequently agreed with Law Society proposals to amend Legal Services Bill for further Society controls. Mr Millar continued : “The proposals currently contained in the Legal Services Bill would allow new business structures access to the Scottish Solicitors Guarantee Fund. While we think it is absolutely right that the protections offered to solicitors’ clients should be extended to those who go to a new legal services provider (LP), we believe all regulators should have as rigorous an inspection regime as the Society and also that the Society should have the power to monitor the operation of corresponding accounts rules by other approved regulators where necessary.”

The Society has also recommended that the Bill should take account of a potential breach in the ownership criteria of LPs, which the Bill states must be majority-owned by solicitors and other regulated professionals, due to unforeseen circumstances such as death or incapacity. It also encourages the Scottish Government to make sure that the public protections for clients of confirmation agents are as strong as they can be.

Millar said: “We are pleased that MSPs and ministers agree that will writers and confirmation agents should be regulated in order to assure the public of better service and protection. Indeed, the Legal Services (Scotland) Bill means that Scotland will be the first UK jurisdiction to do so. I commend the government for its approach and would again encourage ministers to make the rules governing confirmation agents as comprehensive as possible.”

Fergus Ewing Scottish ParliamentCommunities Safety Minister Fergus Ewing frequently caved into Law Society demands to amend the Legal Services Bill. The Bill also proposes a new overarching Regulatory Committee within the Society. The Society however is concerned that as drafted, the Bill will create a split similar to that of the Law Society and Solicitors Regulatory Authority in England and Wales, which the Government, Justice Committee and the Law Society have endeavoured to avoid as the Bill has progressed. The Society agrees the Regulatory Committee should be independent from Council but has proposed changes to the Bill so that the committee would have autonomous decision making powers, but be accountable to the Society’s Council.

The Society has also proposed that amendments to the Solicitors (Scotland) Act 1980, to take account of the Legal Services (Scotland) Bill, should include registration and subscription by firm, currently done on an individual solicitor basis, to allow the organisation to update its processes and lead to potential benefits for members.

President of the Law Society of Scotland Jamie Millar again commented : “The Bill has opened the door to change some of the structures within the Society itself which will help improve the services we can provide for members as well as ensure that our regulatory processes continue to improve. We shall continue to press for amendments to ensure high standards in legal services once the Bill is enacted and that there continue to be proper protections for the public where things go wrong.”

Law Society & faculty of advocatesLaw Society of Scotland member solicitors & the Faculty of Advocates have long dominated Scotland’s legal services market with no competition. An official from one of the UK’s consumer organisations scoffed at the Law Society’s proposals and interference with the bill. He said : “I think this is a very poor showing from the Scottish Parliament, who have virtually said yes to anything the Law Society proposed. Given the Law Society and its member’s stranglehold over consumer’s access to justice in Scotland is the very problem the bill sought to remedy, I doubt Scots will see any improvements in legal services north of the border as a result of this bill being passed.”

A legal insider this morning branded the Legal Services Bill “a waste of parliamentary time” and went onto accuse the Law Society of yet another instance of regulatory capture similar to the influence the Society has exerted over legal profession’s ‘other regulator’, the much weakened Scottish Legal Complaints Commission. Regulatory capture Regulatory capture is a state of affairs which occurs when a regulatory agency created to act in the public interest instead acts in favour of its own members commercial or special interests that dominate in the industry or sector it is charged with regulating.

As things stand the Law Society of Scotland is the only regulator applying to be an ‘approved regulator’ in terms of the Legal Services Bill’s requirements for regulation of the resulting expanded legal services market. I reported earlier on the prospect of this widely seen anti-consumer development here : Christmas for Crooked Lawyers : Law Society say ‘make us approved regulator’ and we will continue to protect dishonest solicitors who rip-off clients

Consumers should be in no doubt as spectators to the Legal Services Bill’s progress have warned … there will not be a significant improvement in choice of legal services in Scotland as a result of the proposals as they now appear, with the prospect that several years from now, we will still be talking about a distinct lack of access to justice in Scotland for those the legal profession wish to keep out of court …

You can read my own coverage 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 …

 

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Scottish consumers ‘to miss out’ on access to justice reforms as Legal Services Bill debate reveals Law Society calls the shots on ‘Tesco Law’

Debating chamberScottish Parliament debated Legal Services Bill. THE LEGAL SERVICES BILL for Scotland, proposed by the Scottish Government to improve Scots consumers access to justice “is turning into little more than a legislative time wasting exercise controlled by the legal profession” according to consumer sources today, after the developments of the past week which saw the bill debated at the Scottish Parliament last Wednesday 28 April where the Bill was passed by 98 votes to 2, amid many retractions by Scottish Ministers on key parts of the bill after intervention by the Law Society of Scotland.

Last Wednesday’s tedious & winding debate, which left spectators in little doubt this piece of access to justice legislation was developing into ‘little more than a protection racket for the current legal services monopoly held by solicitors in Scotland’, saw many retractions of the proposals aimed at allowing Scots consumers to make their own choice on where they could purchase legal services, such as from independent non-lawyer owned legal providers, as opposed to the current Law Society controlled monopoly on legal advice. The Holyrood debate was then followed by a remarkably staged piece of theatre two days later on Friday, where the Law Society of Scotland’s Council, who purported to be previously in favour of alternative business structures voted to oppose abs allowing non-lawyers majority ownership of existing law firms.

Legal Services Bill Stage 1 Debate – The only people not consulted appear to be consumers & fee paying clients ! (click on the links to watch video of the debate)

Fergus Ewing Opening Speech Legal Services Bill Scottish Parliament  28 April 2010 Part 1Fergus Ewing Opening Speech Legal Services Bill Scottish Parliament 28 April 2010 Part 1

Fergus Ewing Opening Speech Legal Services Bill Scottish Parliament  28 April 2010 Part 2Fergus Ewing Opening Speech Legal Services Bill Scottish Parliament 28 April 2010 Part 2

Bill Aitken Opening Speech Legal Services Bill Scottish Parliament  28 April 2010 Part 1Bill Aitken Opening Speech Legal Services Bill Scottish Parliament 28 April 2010 Part 1

Bill Aitken Opening Speech Legal Services Bill Scottish Parliament  28 April 2010 Part 2Bill Aitken Opening Speech Legal Services Bill Scottish Parliament 28 April 2010 Part 2

Richard Baker Legal Services Bill Scottish Parliament 28 April  2010Richard Baker Legal Services Bill Scottish Parliament 28 April 2010

David McLetchie Legal Services Bill Scottish Parliament 28 April  2010David McLetchie Legal Services Bill Scottish Parliament 28 April 2010

Robert Brown Legal Services Bill Scottish Parliament 28 April 2010Robert Brown Legal Services Bill Scottish Parliament 28 April 2010

Nigel Don Legal Services Bill Scottish Parliament 28 April 2010Nigel Don Legal Services Bill Scottish Parliament 28 April 2010

Bill Butler Legal Services Bill Scottish Parliament 28 April 2010Bill Butler Legal Services Bill Scottish Parliament 28 April 2010

James Kelly Legal Services Bill Scottish Parliament 28 April 2010James Kelly Legal Services Bill Scottish Parliament 28 April 2010

Fergus Ewing Closing Speech Legal Services Bill  Scottish Parliament 28 April 2010Fergus Ewing Closing Speech Legal Services Bill Scottish Parliament 28 April 2010

Two days after the Holyrood debate took place, an already planned policy change was voted through by the Law Society of Scotland’s ‘Council’, which changed its policy on alternative business structures (ABSs) to support majority ownership (51%) of law firms remaining with solicitors or solicitors with other ‘regulated’ (preferably self regulated, of course) professionals. More changes are planned, on the Law Society’s stance on the Legal Services Bill itself, as well as a slew of amendments the Society has persuaded (forced) the Scottish Government to undertake to the bill during it’s next hearings at the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee.

Ian SmartLaw Society President Ian Smart. Commenting on the Law Society’s vote change, and making reference to further, if unspecified amendments the Law Society are seeking to what was once a consumer choice bill, now little more than a lawyer’s own market protection bill, the Law Society’s President, Ian Smart in a media release said : “We have listened to the profession and there are strong differences of opinion about the way forward, with large and small firms on both sides of the debate. There does, however, seem to be an acceptance that ABSs are inevitable, as reflected in the parliamentary vote, and that a compromise must be found. ”With that in mind, the Society’s Council – which includes solicitors from every sector of the profession – has adopted what it believes to be fair and reasonable compromise position, which would prevent outright external ownership, for instance by supermarkets, but allow firms to compete in a changing marketplace.”

Mr Smart ended by saying : “The next stage of the parliamentary process, which involves making detailed amendments, is almost upon us so the need to present a clear Council policy without further delay was uppermost in the minds of Council members. “We remain committed to ensuring that the proposed legislation is effective, workable and in the interests of the profession and the public. To achieve that, we will remain in discussions with all interested parties and continue to welcome feedback from solicitors.The revised policy will be put to the Society’s membership at its annual general meeting on 27 May. We hope that others will recognise the benefits of supporting a compromise position.”

“Making detailed amendments” …. that will of course relate to ensuring solicitors control the legal services market in Scotland, and ensure any ‘consumer choice’ is killed off at birth .. and with the Scottish Parliament & Scottish Government apparently so willing to bend to the Law Society at every stage, consumers shouldn’t expect much from this fatally damaged piece of legislation. There is little doubt now the Legal Services Bill will end up as badly damaged as the Legal Profession & Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 2007, and will do nothing for Scots consumers, in terms of widening choice of legal services & access to justice.

Background : The Legal Services Bill (Scotland) came into being after the consumer organisation Which? issued a “super complaint” to the Office of Fair Trading under section 11 of the Enterprise Act 2002, stating that the consumer interest was being harmed the restrictions on advocates’ business structures, solicitors and advocates providing services jointly, third party entry into the market, and direct consumer access to advocates.

The OFT’s response to the Which? super complaint can be viewed here : OFT response to super-complaint (pdf) along with their comments from July 2007 which stated : “Which? argued that the current restrictions against such practices prevent legal services providers in Scotland from adapting their business to best fit the needs of Scottish consumers. The OFT concluded that the restrictions are unnecessary and believes that there would be benefits to consumers if they were lifted – such as efficiency gains and higher levels of innovation in the provision of legal services.”

The Scottish Consumer Council, now renamed Consumer Focus Scotland, issued its response to the OFT’s consideration of the Which? super complaint, broadly supporting the moves to open up Scotland’s legal services market. The SCC’s reply to the OFT can be viewed HERE (pdf)

You can read the full official report of the debate here : Legal Services Bill Stage 1 Debate Wednesday 28 April 2010 and you can find out more about the Legal Services Bill here : Legal Services Bill (Scottish Parliament)

You can read my own coverage of the Legal Services Bill here : Legal Services Bill for Scotland – The story so far

 

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