A thriving legal services sector is more important than ever - Vicky Crichton

Two years ago this month, Esther Roberton published the report of her independent review on the regulation of legal services in Scotland. The review proposed far-reaching reform to the current regulatory framework, with the stated aim to ‘ensure a proportionate approach which would support growth and competitive provision in the legal services sector whilst placing consumer interests firmly at its heart’.

Improvements to the complaints and redress process for legal service users was a key feature of the review’s recommendations

While responses to the review’s recommendations were mixed, that aim remains a touchstone for what the reform is intended to achieve, as was made clear by the Minister’s response to the review last year.

While so much has changed in the world since the independent review, that aim is still crucial. It has never been more important that there is a thriving legal services sector, providing vital advice, support and representation to the people of Scotland, when they need it most. Or that regulation should be delivered in the public interest, and put the consumer interest at its heart.

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Improvements to the complaints and redress process for legal service users was a key feature of the review’s recommendations, and one the SLCC welcomes. We have worked hard to successfully improve our efficiency and effectiveness within the current legislative framework. We know this has had a positive impact on complainers seeking resolution and on lawyers facing complaints.

However, much more is needed and the SLCC continues to call for reform to the legislation governing our work to help create a swifter, fairer and more proportionate complaints system. We continue to work with others across the legal sector, and government, to achieve this.

Complaints are only part of the story, however. A risk-based and outcomes-focused regulatory system should have a clear focus on continuous improvement and the prevention of failures (which can lead to complaints). It should work to protect consumers from harm as well as resolving issues when they do occur.

Delivering regulatory reform is challenging. Ten years after legislation was passed to allow different business structures to operate legal services in Scotland, that regulation is not yet in place. The current regulatory landscape makes it challenging to achieve meaningful change. Evolutionary reform has layered further complexity over already convoluted arrangements, without achieving the intended benefits.

Elsewhere in the UK, and around the world, governments and legal services continue to grapple with similar issues. Some, like Ireland, have taken a broadly similar approach to the Roberton recommendations. The recent academic-led independent review in England and Wales has made similar recommendations for reform. Independent regulation has been the direction of travel in other sectors, including the health professions.

Legal services are regulated because of their vital importance in supporting the rule of law and access to justice. That places some regulatory burdens on providers to ensure they meet required standards, but those requirements should be proportionate to the risk to society and to consumers. This is vital because regulation is costly to the sector, and those costs are passed on to legal service users.

As discussions continue about the best way to regulate legal services, it’s vital that we focus on what should be at its heart – regulation that supports a competitive and innovative legal services market that helps people access the legal support they need, and protects them from harm.

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

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