Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Posts Tagged ‘unregulated providers of legal services

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

Unregulated providers of legal services

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Not all legal services are provided by lawyers or legal executives who are regulated by their professional bodies. There is a group of legal service providers who are not authorised and regulated under any legal sector specific legislation, but who  are providing legal services for profit and as a significant focus of their work.

The Legal Services Board has recently (June 2016) published research on the work of this sector of the legal service market.  The research looked in detail at will-writing, online divorce and intellectual property.

The Key Findings of the research were:

  1. For profit unregulated providers make up a small proportion of the legal services market. In the individual legal needs survey, they represented 4.5-5.5% of cases in which consumers paid for advice or representation.
  2. In contrast, not for profit providers, most of whom will be unregulated, accounted for approximately 37% of all legal problems where advice was sought.
  3. Benefits for consumers include lower prices and greater price transparency compared to regulated providers, innovation and service differentiation, and competitive impact on regulated providers.
  4. The main risks to consumers relate to consumers not making informed choices and misleading advertising claims. The research did not assess the technical quality of work.
  5. Consumer satisfaction with customer service is broadly comparable across regulated and unregulated providers – 84% versus 81% respectively.
  6. More than half of consumers who instruct for profit unregulated providers are aware of their regulatory status. Of those who don’t check, a significant proportion do not do so because they assume that they are regulated.
  7. There is a limited potential market for voluntary regulation beyond existing trade associations given the size of the market and low appetite for such initiatives among providers.

For the time being, at least, the policy conclusions for the Legal Services Board are that

  1. The for profit unregulated sector is smaller than expected, although in some segments these providers have gained a significant market share.
  2. Based on the evidence of benefits and risks to consumers and limited potential market for voluntary regulation beyond existing trade associations, the LSB will monitor developments but will not pursue a voluntary arrangement under the Legal Services Act.
  3. Consumers should be encouraged to check whether or not providers are regulated.

In other words no active intervention for the moment.

Notwithstanding these broad conclusions, the research did look more closely at the work of for profit unregulated providers in three areas: will-writing; divorce; and intellectual property, where not insignificant amounts of legal services work was being undertaken by unregulated providers – around 10% of the work. The dominance in the area of divorce by 5 on-line companies offering very cheap services can be particularly noted.

My guess is that, so long as the unregulated sector provides cost-effective services, with which consumers are satisfied, the lack of regulation will continue. But if there is a highly publicised scandal, then the regulatory context will change.

For the research go to https://research.legalservicesboard.org.uk/wp-content/media/Economic-insight-in-depth-unregulated-research.pdf

Written by lwtmp

July 17, 2016 at 9:53 am