Vicky Crichton: Present complaints system undermines consumer confidence

Reform in any sector requires a balancing of differing views and careful attention to the needs, concerns and aspirations of all stakeholders. Proposals for reform of legal services regulation are no different. They must deliver for consumers, for the sector, and in the public interest. For this to happen, all of those voices need to be able to actively contribute to the debate.

The independent review on the regulation of legal services, Fit for the Future, drew on a range of evidence to inform its recommendations, but specifically highlighted the lack of consumer research and insight. To address this gap, it commissioned qualitative research to investigate people’s experiences of accessing legal services across Scotland.

This small study provides a helpful insight into consumer views and perceptions. The findings chimed with our own experience that poor communication is often at the core of complaints, and that reducing the complexity of the complaints process could improve the consumer experience.

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In the same vein, the SLCC Consumer Panel was keen to develop greater insight into public views of regulation. It has a statutory power to suggest areas for research, and in response we commissioned a poll on legal regulation and complaints handling.

Our poll, carried out by YouGov, found public support for a more accountable and transparent system of regulation, and highlighted concerns about public confidence in a self-regulatory model.

It’s a snapshot of a complex issue. With no major research on this issue in the last couple of decades, we firmly believe that further insight into consumer and public views is required.

However, it does give us a clear indication that the general public in Scotland does have a view and that this should inform deliberations on the future of regulation and complaints handling.

It also reinforces what we hear often in our customer feedback – that the complaints system not being entirely separate from representative functions undermines consumer confidence in the system and provides the perception of conflict of interest.

We believe that understanding consumer and public views can help us to develop a regulatory system that proactively reduces some of the common causes of complaints. Asking the public what they looked for in good regulation should also ensure that any future system commands public and consumer trust – a key priority for the reform.

If we are to ensure that any future model of regulation meets the objective to deliver in the public interest, it’s vital that there is meaningful, substantive and properly resourced engagement with the public as part of the reform process.

Without this, we risk analysis that doesn’t address the key issues of concern for consumers, and proposals for reform that don’t meet the government’s commitment to deliver a modern and effective framework of legal services regulation.

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The SLCC Consumer Panel has made clear its concerns about the lack of consumer voice. At the same time, Scottish Government is building a strong track record in using ‘service design’ approaches to actively engage users of services, as well as those delivering them, in their development.

We believe that drawing on public views, consumer experience and insight, and professionals’ knowledge and expertise will help to develop a model of regulation that delivers the best outcomes for consumers and the sector, and which retains the confidence of the profession and the public.

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