Transparency key to better informed and better protected legal services consumers
Improving information for clients will be vital in a more competitive legal market according to the Law Society of Scotland.
In its response to the Competition & Markets Authority’s Interim Report on the Legal Services Market, the Law Society has said that the legal services sector should be fully transparent from a competition and consumer protection perspective and that providing clear information for consumers is essential to ensure they are making informed choices.
Carole Ford, non-solicitor convener of the Law Society of Scotland’s Regulatory Committee, said: “While this particular study focuses on legal services in England and Wales many of the themes relate to legal services in Scotland, although it has a different regulatory system. We think consumers across the UK should have easy access to all the information necessary for them to make a fully informed and reasoned choice in selecting a legal services provider.
“We also think that there needs to be change to regulatory processes so that those providing any legal advice or services are regulated to some degree.
“The ‘unregulated legal sector’ is not defined within either UK or Scottish legislation. It refers to those who provide legal advice and representation in areas which are not reserved to solicitors or other regulated legal professionals such as copyright attorneys or licensed conveyancers. Consumers purchasing legal services from the unregulated sector, without necessarily being aware of that, are exposed if the advice is incorrect or something goes wrong.
“We believe there is a strong case to have proportionate regulation of the legal services market in each of the UK’s jurisdictions to ensure that consumers enjoy and have the benefit of consistent and assured protection, as is currently afforded to all those seeking advice and representation from a regulated firm.”
In its response, the society has criticised current legislation which prevents anyone from acting as a notary in England and Wales unless they were admitted there.
Ms Ford said: “This legislation is anti-competitive and not in the public interest as it can lead to delays and increased costs for clients. There are almost 300 notaries public admitted in Scotland who practice as solicitors in England and Wales, but who cannot carry out any duties as a notary. This incurs additional costs as well as delays for clients of Scottish solicitors who have to take an extra step in instructing an English-qualified notary, not to mention finding additional time when both appointed notary and client are available to sign a document.”
The Law Society of Scotland is currently in discussions with the Scottish government in relation to regulating legal services in Scotland.
Ms Ford added: “In March 2016, we published our paper ‘The Solicitor (Scotland) Act 1980 – the Case for Change’ which sets out our ambition to replace the current patchwork of legislation to secure a modern, flexible and enabling legislative framework for the regulation of the solicitor profession and the provision of legal services in Scotland, placing consumer interest and protection at the centre.”
“We think consumer protection needs to be paramount, particularly in the legal services market where there is a risk of serious detriment effect on the consumer if something, however unlikely, goes wrong.
“We know from our own research that people often do not differentiate between those using the title ‘lawyer’ and ‘solicitor’ and don’t realise that a person who can legitimately call themselves a lawyer need not be regulated, unlike a solicitor who is a qualified and regulated legal professional. We have concerns that the unregulated legal sector may not always give consumers the assurance of protection they expect. This could be resolved through better signposting to help build awareness and ensure that consumers are advised of the level of protection available for every legal services provider, as well as the complaints process.
“A better-informed consumer is a better-protected consumer.”