Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Posts Tagged ‘regulation of the legal profession

Legal choices – website on legal service providers

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One of the recommendations made by the Competition and Market Authority 2016 report on competition in legal services was that there should be a revamp of and better promotion for the Legal Choices website. It was intended that this should be the starting point for customers needing help, information, and guidance on how to navigate the market and purchase services.

The website is run by the frontline regulators themselves (Solicitors Regulation Authority, Bar Standards Board, etc.), and aims to provide factual information about who is regulated, how they are regulated, and how to find information out about those who are regulated, their costs, and what can be expected from them by way of service. It does not sell services or products.

I have not noted its existence before – but this is an omission I now seek to rectify. It contains a great deal of useful information. It should, as the CMA proposed, be much better promoted to the wider public.

To visit the website go to https://www.legalchoices.org.uk/.

 

 

 

 

 

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Written by lwtmp

October 14, 2018 at 3:14 pm

Research into Alternative Business Structures: the Legal Services Board

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Since licensing began in 2011 there have been 950 ABS licences issued. As of March 2017 there were 892 active licences.  In April 2017, the Legal Services Board published a significant report into ABS. It sought to address 4 questions, which I have adapted from the report and which I try to summarise here:

1.What kind of investment activity has there been in ABS?

These businesses are predominantly existing legal service businesses converting to ABS status, with one in five respondents to our survey being new firms. Three fifths of ABS have less than 50% non-lawyer ownership. Just under one in five ABS are wholly owned by non-lawyers, with a similar proportion being fully owned by lawyers but having some proportion of non-lawyer managers….

The research shows that the majority of ABS firms (66%) either have already invested or are planning to do so, since they gained their ABS licence. These investments have mainly been made to hire more staff, increase marketing activity or to purchase IT. The LSB sees this as evidence of the increased scale that allowing non-lawyer ownership was designed to enable.

2.Is the market attractive to all sources of finance?

The survey shows ABS firms accessing a wide range of sources of finance, and only a small proportion of ABS indicating difficulties in accessing finance. The most frequent source of funding for investments was business profits or cash reserves which were used by 49% of those who had invested in their business. Just over a quarter of investments were solely funded us ing a loan from a bank, and a quarter were solely funded using the business’ overdraft facility.

External sources of equity finance accounted for only a minority of investment funding sources either as the sole or joint source of investment funds, and only 12% of ABS had used any form of external finance. Partnerships are more likely to use debt funding for finance, with 55% using loans or overdrafts, but none had used external investment. Companies limited by guarantee had the highest proportionate use of any form of external funding, with 24% issuing shares, investment from private equity, or becoming a subsidiary of another company.

3. What do investors think of the legal services market?

According to the investors interviewed, the legal sector is seen as a ‘sleepy’ market with opportunities for investors to grow their investment capital by improving efficiency within the business itself. They appear to have concerns about the ability to exit the legal sector once their investment has matured, although there are some examples of private equity investors having sold on their investment and exited the sector.

Except perhaps in the personal injury sector, it would appear that bank lending is a substitute for external capital. For the firm this means they do not have to cede ownership control of part of their business. In addition, there is a view that many firms do not present financial information in the ways investors expect and/or have a weak grasp of the value of their businesses.

This might explain the investor’s perspective of the legal sector as being reluctant to seek investment from private equity firms, and reports of investors struggling to find appropriate firms in which to invest. While the overall size of the market and the scale of businesses operating may limit opportunities for some investors, the LSB thinks that cultural norms, governance, and non-commercial financial management practices in some businesses are likely to be more important factors.

4. Are there any regulatory barriers to investment?

Only 6% of ABS identified some aspect of legal services regulation that prevented them accessing finance. Nor does the cost of legal services regulation appear to be a barrier… However there is anecdotal evidence of some areas of regulation causing concern to investors. These includes restrictions on ownership and picking up liabilities for historic complaints and insurance claims.

Only 1.5% of ABS identified some aspect of wider regulation that prevented them accessing finance. The regulatory barriers to investment cited by the investor and investment consultant we spoke to relate mainly to wider regulatory and governmental activity, particularly in relation to personal injury reforms

Conclusion:

The potential link between investment and enabling better access to legal services is well–rehearsed elsewhere. However, investment remains an under-explored area of research and generally licensing authorities have not used their data to understand trends in investment and financing. [Overall it may be concluded that] levels of innovation are not increasing.

The dynamics of competition create incentives for suppliers to increase productivity through innovation, which lowers costs and hence prices through time. This is likely to involve taking a different approach to delivering a service, or developing new services completely. In the absence of strong competition, there is insufficient impetus for law firms to take the greater risks (and rewards) involved with using external capital.

Until these incentives change the LSB thinks there is unlikely to be significant growth in the use of external capital by ABS firms.

The report can bee seen at http://www.legalservicesboard.org.uk/news_publications/LSB_News/PDF/2017/20170613_LSB_publishes_investment_in_legal_services_research.html

Written by lwtmp

October 19, 2017 at 5:15 pm

Competition in Legal Services: new report

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The Competition and Market Authority Final Report on legal services was published in December. Its interim report was noted in this blog in July 2016.

The CMA found that competition in legal services for individual and small business consumers is not working as well as it might. In particular, there was a lack of digital comparison tools to make comparisons easier for consumers. Lack of competition meant some providers can charge higher prices when substantially cheaper prices are available for comparable services.

In response to these findings, the CMA set out a package of measures which challenges providers and regulators to help customers better navigate the market and get value for money. These changes were drawn up after discussions with key stakeholders, including the 8 frontline legal regulators, and will be overseen by the Legal Services Board, which will report on progress.

They include:

A requirement on providers to display information on price, service, redress and regulatory status to help potential customers. This would include publishing pricing information for particular services online (only 17% of firms do so at present).

Revamping and promoting the existing Legal Choices website to be a starting point for customers needing help, information and guidance on how to navigate the market and purchase services.

Facilitating the development of comparison sites and other intermediaries to allow customers to compare providers in one place by making data already collected by regulators available. At present only 22% of people compare the services on offer before appointing a lawyer.

Encouraging legal service providers to engage with feedback and review platforms to ensure that customers can benefit from the experience of others before making their choice.

Recommending that the Ministry of Justice looks at whether to extend protection from existing redress schemes to customers using ‘unauthorised’ providers.

In addition, the CMA considered the impact of legal services regulation on competition. The CMA found that whilst the current system is not a major barrier, it may not be sustainable in the long term. In particular, the framework is not sufficiently flexible to apply proportionate risk-based regulation which reflects differences across legal services which could harm competition. The CMA therefore also recommends that the Ministry of Justice reviews the current framework to make it more flexible and targeted at protecting consumers in areas where it is most needed.

The Legal Services Board has welcomed the report and announced that it will publish its response in due course. The Ministry of Justice response is also awaited.

For more detail https://www.gov.uk/government/news/cma-demands-greater-transparency-from-legal-service-providers

Regulating Alternative Business Structures

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One of the last Ministerial actions taken by Lord Faulks, before he decided to leave the Government, was to publish a very important consultation on how Alternative Business Structures (ABS) should be regulated.

On 30 November 2015, the Government published, ‘A Better Deal: boosting competition to bring down bills for families and firms’ which set out the Government’s approach to encouraging open and competitive markets, for the benefit of the UK economy and UK consumers. A key part of the Government’s approach is to ensure that the statutory frameworks underpinning regulatory regimes allow regulators to regulate in a way that is proportionate and promotes competition and innovation.

As the legal services market is not only an important contributor to the UK economy, but also to ensuring individuals’ and companies’ access to justice, the Government seeks to develop a strong, independent and competitive legal services market, which will promote consumer choice and quality services at lower prices, ensuring greater access to justice for all.

The Better Deal document included a pledge to consult on two particular matters:

  1. making changes to the regulatory framework for legal services to remove barriers to market entry, and regulatory burdens on, Alternative Business Structures in legal services, and
  2. making legal services regulators independent from professional representative bodies.

The second of these is delayed, pending the final report from the Competition and Markets Authority – about which I have written separately.

However on 7 July 2016, the Government published a Consultation Paper on what changes might be needed to the regulation of ABSs.

Background

Since 2010, when Alternative Business Structures were first licensed to provide legal services, over 600 ABS firms have entered the market. According to the Government:

The introduction of ABS businesses, particularly those that have access to external investment and business and commercial expertise, has benefited the market more widely. Recent research has indicated that ABS firms are more likely to be innovative than other regulated legal services firms. These new, innovative providers have increased competition in the market, which [the Government believes] encourages a wider variety of legal services in the market that are more accessible and affordable to consumers.

As a result of concerns raised at the time about the potential risks of new and unknown business models, the legislative framework for the regulation of ABS businesses, set out in the Legal Services Act 2007, is more onerous and prescriptive than that for traditional law firms.

Six years on, experience suggests that ABS businesses have not been shown to attract any greater regulatory risk than traditional law firms. In consequence,  the Legal Services Board and front-line regulators suggest that the current statutory requirements act as a deterrent and an unnecessary barrier to firms wanting to change their current business model to a more innovative one, as well as to new businesses considering entering the market.

The proposals

The proposals set out in the consultation aim to enable legal services regulators to reduce regulatory burdens on ABS, while taking a more effective risk-based approach to regulation. The proposals are very technical in nature. The following summary is set out in Legal Futures.

  • ABSs should not have to provide reserved legal activities from a practising address in England and Wales. The consultation said this restriction can prevent online businesses being licensed as ABSs, while traditional firms are not required to do reserved work.
  • ABS licensing authorities should be able to make their own rules around ABS ownership, in line with guidance to be provided by the LSB. The consultation said the current “inflexible” rules on which non-lawyers need to be investigated before assuming ownership of an ABS leads to unnecessary checks on some people who have no real control or influence over an ABS, but others who should be checked fall outside the definitions set out in the Act.
  • Abolishing the requirement to consider whether an ABS applicant explicitly meets the regulatory objective of improving access to justice. There is no equivalent on non-ABS firms or individuals, while all the regulators and licensing authorities are separately under an obligation to improve access to justice anyway. “We consider that this would save cost and time for applicants who wish to become an ABS as well as for regulators.”
  • Amend the Act so that heads of legal practice and of finance and administration (COLPs and COFAs in traditional firms) only have to report ‘material’ failures to comply with licensing rules, rather than ‘all’ failures as now. This would bring ABSs into line with non-ABS firms.

The Consultation runs until 3 August 2016.

For Lord Faulks Ministerial statement, see https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/legal-services-regulation.

For the Consultation paper, go to https://consult.justice.gov.uk/digital-communications/legal-services-removing-barriers-to-competition

For the summary in Legal Futures go to http://www.legalfutures.co.uk/latest-news/government-lays-plans-encourage-abss-enter-market#

 

Regulation of the Legal Profession: Competition and Markets Authority gets in on the act

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After the regulatory upheavals which led up to the Legal Services Act 2007 and the creation of the Legal Services Board, lawyers might have been forgiven for thinking that the regulatory playing field might be left untouched for a bit. But no. The Competition and Markets Authority announced in January 2016 that it was going to take a close look at competition in legal services provision by launching what is called a Market Study.

The Press release of the annoucement states:

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) will examine long-standing concerns about the affordability of legal services and standards of service. Concerns have also been raised about the complexity of the current regulatory framework.

In light of these concerns, the CMA’s market study plans to examine 3 key issues:

  • whether customers can drive effective competition by making informed purchasing decisions
  • whether customers are adequately protected from potential harm or can obtain satisfactory redress if legal services go wrong
  • how regulation and the regulatory framework impact on competition for the supply of legal services

The announcement also stated: According to recent surveys …  around one in ten users of legal services in England and Wales have said that the overall service and advice provided to them was poor value for money …, [and] amongst small businesses, only 13% said they viewed lawyers as cost-effective and around half agreed that they used legal service providers as a last resort to solve business problems.

The outcomes of a Market Study are very varied, and may range from a finding that all is well and that no further action need be taken, to a full scale investigation into the particular market.

The time line for the present study is that after a very short consultation (ending early Feb 2016) an interim report will be published in July 2016, with a final report at the end of the year.

For further information go to https://www.gov.uk/government/news/legal-services-study-launched-by-cma

This also provides links to some of the reports on which the case for launching the Market Study is based.

Written by lwtmp

January 24, 2016 at 12:00 pm