Regulators should develop a more coherent view of how regulation can work most effectively within the rapidly-changing legal services environment, Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) Chief Executive Antony Townsend believes.
Mr Townsend was speaking at an SRA symposium discussing the challenges and issues facing regulators since the advent of a liberalised legal services market, introduced by the Legal Services Act 2007 (LSA), held on Thursday 26 April. Representatives from the Legal Services Board, Bar Standards Boad and IPS (ILEX Professional Standards), representative bodies, academics and practitioners attended the day-long event in London, chaired by BBC Breakfast News presenter Naga Munchetty.
A total of 15 panellists, including Lord Falconer, the minister responsible for the Legal Services Bill, presented a lively range of views on the future scope of regulation.
Mr Townsend said: “The progress made since the advent of the LSA is fantastic, but the question now is, ’what are the next steps?’. How, with increasing mixes of groups and overlaps of activity will consumers understand which services best meet their needs? As regulators, we need to develop a more coherent view of what regulation and compensation arrangements are going to look like.”
All present agreed that the rapidly-changing market was presenting challenges to existing regulatory arrangements – although views differed on the best way to manage these.
Crispin Passmore, Legal Services Board Strategy Director, said: “What is the right balance? The ways in which we envisage achieving our aspirations today will not be the same in 20 years’ time.”
SRA Executive Director Richard Collins added: “The major building blocks of the LSA are in place – we’ve licensed five ABSs – but there’s plenty more to do. We will face pressure to change, from consumers and further pressure from the market. We must be ready for this.”
Law Society Vice-President Lucy Scott-Moncrieff highlighted concerns that restrictions on Legal Aid, introduced by the new Legal Aid Bill - which received Parliamentary consent yesterday - would make legal services unaffordable for a significant percentage of the population.
SRA Executive Director Samantha Barrass responded by stressing the need to ensure regulatory arrangements did not prevent service providers from developing new ways of offering affordable legal services. She said: “We cannot stifle innovation. We must have an open mind to help consumers to afford legal services they can’t afford at present. We need to be open to different funding models.”
Lord Falconer responded to comments that the challenges presented by the emerging legal service market meant further changes to statutory arrangements should be introduced. He said: “It is too early to say the LSA is not working. I believe all the regulators are doing a good job, at present. If the market changes, let us come back and look at it.”