Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Are They off Their Trolleys? the Government Thinks We Would like to Buy Legal Services at the Supermarket along with Our Weekly Groceries, and Has Initiated a Review That May Lead the Way to Such a Radical Change. There May Be Trouble Ahead. Bob Sherwood Explains

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Are They off Their Trolleys? the Government Thinks We Would like to Buy Legal Services at the Supermarket along with Our Weekly Groceries, and Has Initiated a Review That May Lead the Way to Such a Radical Change. There May Be Trouble Ahead. Bob Sherwood Explains

Article excerpt

You pick up your weekly groceries at a sprawling, out-of-town supermarket. You probably collect medicines there, too, and maybe even have a credit card or bank account with the same company. But would you trust it to help you buy a house? Or handle your divorce?

The government thinks you--or at least an important section of the population--would, given the chance. In the parlance of Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the reforming Lord Chancellor, that concept has become known as "Tesco law". But to enable it to happen requires a radical overhaul of the regulations governing the way lawyers practise. That is why Falconer has commissioned such a heavy hitter as Sir David Clementi, formerly deputy governor of the Bank of England and now chairman of the insurer Prudential, to spend this year reviewing the centuries-old way that solicitors and barristers conduct their business. It will not be uncontroversial.

While there has hardly been a public clamour for an overhaul of the way lawyers provide their services, one of the principal drivers for such fundamental change is the government's oft-repeated mantra of improving access to justice. It fears that the stuffy, formal manner that comes naturally to many solicitors, who are not renowned for plain speaking, intimidates many people and prevents them from ever seeking legal help for family or domestic issues. As Falconer said recently: "If, for example, we have Tesco law, will we discover that more people have a personal injuries claim? That more people are victims of domestic violence? And if we do, what does that tell us about the current market for legal services? Why are these people not going to solicitors at the moment?"

The flip side of that is ensuring legal practitioners can command the sort of trust that will enable wary members of the public to place the most distressing problems in their hands. That means regulation with teeth--something the solicitors' profession has notably lacked in recent years. The dismal record of the Law Society, the body that represents 90,000 solicitors in England and Wales, in handling complaints against high street practitioners has long been a source of embarrassment. Audits of the self-regulation system have damned the effectiveness of the society's procedures, and it appears that the government might finally have lost patience.

Last year, Falconer created a legal services complaints commissioner to oversee the Law Society's complaints arm--much to its disgust. In her most recent report, Zahida Manzoor, who is both the new complaints commissioner and the legal services ombudsman, said the backlog of complaints against solicitors had almost doubled in less than two years. However, the Law Society is pouring [pounds sterling]21m over three years into its complaints arm, and there does appear to be an improvement in the number of cases being closed under the guiding hand of Janet Paraskeva, the society's chief executive. She wants more time for the results of the work on complaints to become clear before any drastic changes are imposed. But it may be too little, too late.

It is certainly difficult to argue that Britain's legal services, one of the most important facets of our democratic society, do not need clearer regulation. At the moment, there is a confusing maze of 22 different legal regulatory bodies, a system that even most lawyers do not really understand. Clementi will consider--and quite possibly recommend--stripping the Law Society and the Bar Council (its counterpart body for barristers) of their self-regulatory functions to make way for an overarching regulator along the lines of the Financial Services Authority. Not surprisingly, both organisations bridle at the suggestion--though even that threat has not brought the two bodies, never particularly friendly, closer together.

Stephen Irwin QC, the chairman of the Bar, recently raised the hackles of Paraskeva by suggesting that Clementi could propose revamping regulation for solicitors but leave barristers to be overseen by the Bar Council, whose system has managed to avoid condemnation from the ombudsman. …

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