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Hayter calls for 'credible' comparison websites and single 'regulatory badge'

15 November 2010

Dianne Hayter, chair of the LSB’s consumer panel, has called for the development of “credible” solicitor comparison websites to help consumers choose between firms.

In a report on quality in legal services, Hayter also called for a “single regulatory badge” for lawyers to help consumers distinguish between regulated and unregulated providers.

It is understood that the badge could simply contain the words ‘regulated lawyer’, with a tick next to it, and the details of the regulator, such as the SRA or BSB, in small print below.

Hayter said that a lack of checking of the technical quality of work, and “light-touch” requirements for lawyers to show continuing competence, suggested that regulators as well as consumers were making “heroic assumptions” about quality.

Calling on the Legal Ombudsman to publish complaints, Hayter said the panel would “strongly encourage publication in a way that is fair and meaningful”.

She said legal comparison websites had not taken off and had faced criticisms in other sectors for lack of coverage and bias.

“The panel supports the development of credible comparison sites and will return to this in 2011-12,” she said.

Hayter warned that harnessing consumer power to maintain quality could only go so far and that complaints data would not inform consumers about the technical quality of advice.

“Regulatory activity focuses on entry requirements and disciplinary processes. Unless an issue arises, there are few proactive checks to ensure that professionals remain competent.

“Quality checking mechanisms, such as peer review and chambers’ monitoring, focus on process rather than the substance of advice.”

Hayter said regulatory activity was out of step with what the public expected. “Participants in the panel’s research expected competence to be continually monitored. When given a list of options for ensuring quality, they strongly preferred ‘harder’ regulator-led mechanisms such as regular competence reviews or exams.”

Hayter said that periodic revalidation was being introduced for doctors, and, in the consumer panel’s research, participants expected lawyers to undergo a ‘regular MOT’.

She added that there was also a case for lawyers to gain additional qualifications if they wanted to work in specialist areas, using the example of quality assurance for advocates.

“The CPD regime suffers from a range of deficiencies; in particular it is insufficiently linked to practice areas. Regulators should check the technical quality of advice, not just processes.

“CPD systems need to be strengthened. The entry requirements for lawyers do not provide a lifetime guarantee of quality, as has been accepted in other professions. There is a strong case for introducing more stringent mechanisms, including periodic reaccreditation in some practice areas.”

The consumer panel’s immediate priority is research on will writing, and in particular whether it should continue to be an unregulated activity.

It is understood that the panel’s plans are well advanced for a ‘mystery shopper’ exercise, funded by the SRA and OFT, which could begin as early as December.

In a separate development, what has been described as the first “legal retail store” opened last week in Lewisham shopping centre, London, under the QualitySolicitors brand.

Ian Freeman, senior partner of Freeman Harris, a two-partner general practice in Bermondsey, said the firm’s new branch would be staffed by four paralegals, supervised by a solicitor, and would not offer criminal legal aid services.

He said much of the work would be referred to a firm in the North West, which is also a QS firm. The store’s opening hours would follow those of the shopping centre: 9-5 on Monday to Saturday, late nights on Thursday until 8pm and 11-5 on Sunday.

Even before the branch opened, Freeman said the firm had received quite a lot of new cases, including probate, conveyancing, immigration and personal injury work and one legally aided divorce.

The Lewisham ‘store’ was opened as part of the second phase of QualitySolicitors openings across the country, which will see a further 55 branches open for business, following the launch of the first 15 in May this year.

Craig Holt, chief executive of QualitySolicitors, said that, with a further 50 branches scheduled to be launched in February 2011, there was now a recognisable ‘household name’ for people with legal issues.

“People no longer need to embark on the time-consuming and often stressful task of choosing between dozens of local law firms, uncertain about the service they’ll receive,” he said.

“Undoubtedly, the legal market will undergo a dramatic transformation – just as Specsavers, Boots and Vision Express now dominate the opticians’ market, so a handful of brand names will dominate the future legal market.

“QualitySolicitors is the first such brand and aims to change people’s expectations of legal services, making it an easier and less intimidating process.”

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