Consultation is opportunity to realise benefits of legal regulation - Vicky Crichton

Vicky Crichton is Director of Public Policy, Scottish Legal Complaints CommissionVicky Crichton is Director of Public Policy, Scottish Legal Complaints Commission
Vicky Crichton is Director of Public Policy, Scottish Legal Complaints Commission
The Scottish Parliament has wrestled with modernising and improving legal services regulation and complaints handling since its creation. Many of the reforms introduced have layered further complexity over already convoluted regulatory arrangements, or proved unworkable in practice.

So, the Scottish Government’s consultation on legal services regulation, published last week, is very welcome. We believe it’s time for fundamental reform to create a future-proofed regulatory system – one that works for legal service users and providers, and meets society’s need for a well-functioning legal services market.

Five years ago, the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission published its ‘Reimagine Regulation’ paper, setting out proposals for reform to a system that is significantly more complex and legalistic than it needs to be. Those proposals were based on our experience of helping thousands of consumers who had suffered harm or detriment, and dismissing thousands of cases where we could provide independent assurance and confirmation that a lawyer had provided an acceptable service.

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The SLCC, along with other regulatory bodies, strives hard to make the current arrangements work as best we can for consumers and lawyers alike. But that should not detract from the fact there are real challenges with some aspects of the current system, and those require fundamental reform.

Legal services regulation is currently not proportionate, consistent, and targeted, in line with the better regulation principles. Regulation is costly to the sector, and those costs are passed onto legal service users. Anyone needing help in seeking redress is met with a lengthy and confusing process.

While most legal service users don’t often think about regulation, that doesn’t mean it isn’t important to them. They want any legal advice or support they need to be provided by an individual or firm with the knowledge and expertise to help them solve their problem, at a fair cost and with a professional level of service. They want to know that they will be protected, and that if something goes wrong, it will be addressed swiftly and efficiently. Polling also shows the public expect regulation to be independent, transparent and accountable, but don’t believe the current system is.

What’s needed is a clear vision of what regulation is for, and what it needs to achieve. The model of regulation we choose needs to be focused on delivering those outcomes. The legislation governing regulation needs to provide a framework that allows agility, proportionality and responsiveness. It needs to be fit for today’s changing legal services landscape, and able to adapt to future challenges and opportunities.

Reforming the regulation of legal services could have real benefits for all. For lawyers and firms it should mean more proportionate regulation, based on the work they do and the risk it carries for the public interest and for consumers. It should help foster innovation. That might include new legal services and providers in areas where access to justice is challenging, or where consumers currently avoid seeking legal support. For those needing to access legal services it should provide greater confidence in doing so, knowing that the protections they expect are in place.

Most importantly, it should ensure that regulation delivers for the public good, reflecting the vital role that legal services play in our society. There is an opportunity here for us to realise those benefits – let’s make sure we take it.

Vicky Crichton is Director of Public Policy, Scottish Legal Complaints Commission