Deregulating the legal market is an issue that has occupied the minds of politicians and lawyers in several countries, but the UK has generally lead the way with law marketplace reform.
The use of Alternative Business Structures (ABSs) to provide legal services via supermarkets, estate agents and others, has lead to doubts over the effect upon both the law firms and their clients, even though greater access to legal advice will be available.
Increased doubts are emerging in some quarters of how the reforms, including permitting lawyers to work outside of the constraints of a regulated firm has lead to a “Wild West” marketplace in the UK.
The UK Solicitors’ Regulation Authority has said that it wants to lift the rule that prevents a solicitor from running a firm unless they have been legally able to run a practice for at least three years.
But the UK Law Gazette reports that the UK Law Society says the changes risk creating an uneven legal playing field with consumers unsure what protections they have.
Society president Joe Egan said: ‘We are gravely concerned the SRA is ploughing ahead with proposals that would see solicitors subject to entirely different regulations depending on where they practise. The regulator has failed to think through the implications for consumer protection nor has it proposed adequate safeguards.’
Vulnerable Clients at Risk
The changes could jeopardise “vulnerable clients” by putting them in the hands of unsupervised, inexperienced lawyers. And the SRA has heavily criticised rules over running a law firm, saying the rule about setting up a firm is “confusing, conflating technical competence, supervision arrangements and running a business.”
The Law Society has also criticised plans contained in a second consultation to force firms to publish prices on their websites, noting that it is counter-intuitive to force entities that are regulated to publish content and information when there is no such requirement placed upon unregulated entities.
Removal of Barriers
The UK government announced last December that there will be announcements regarding the deregulation of the legal sector, including plans to remove barriers to entry for Alternative Business Structures (ABSs) and ensure the legal regulators are independent from their representative legal bodies.
Criticism of the changes also came from other key parties.
Catherine Dixon, the Chief Executive of the Law Society, noted that there should be “minimum rules” put in place.
“People who are the most qualified and trained (solicitors) are the most regulated, and people who may not have any legal qualifications or training are the least regulated. We think that regulatory rules which should set the minimum rules and necessary protection for clients have become confusingly mixed up with professional standards.”