Covid-19 formed the backdrop to every discussion we had at Board this week. We know that the pandemic is having a profound impact on individuals and families across the UK. Equally businesses and institutions are impacted, including those that support access to justice and underpin the rule of law. So while we reminded ourselves that our purpose is to secure effective regulation of the legal services market in the public interest, we recognised that much of our effort over the coming months will be devoted, willingly, to providing support to others. To help them deal with the challenges they face now and, critically, to orientation our actions around recovery from the pandemic and the role regulation might have to play in that.
We have been in discussion with all the legal services regulators to clarify, what we might reasonably expect of each other during the period of the crisis itself. For example, we are working up mechanisms for providing rapid approval to regulatory changes that might be needed to cope with the “new normal”, much as we did with exemption directions in the run up to EU exit. I should say, that we do not see the need for compromise on standards, or on public protection but regulators can expect us to collaborate swiftly in helping to support any changes they feel they need to make.
We are considering our own priorities and keeping activity under ongoing review. We will share updates and consult with stakeholders as our plans evolve.
Business Plan 2020/21
At the Board meeting, we approved the Budget and Business Plan for 2020/21. I would like to thank everyone who responded to our consultation earlier this year and provided feedback. The business plan is due to be published next week.
We are looking forward to the projects in the upcoming financial year, such as developing quality indicators for the sector, ensuring ongoing competence, and ensuring IGR compliance. However, we will remain flexible over the coming months as the legal sector deals with the impacts of Covid-19. Indeed, we have started to consider the role that we will play in supporting the recovery of the legal sector once the crisis is over and we plan research in this area.
OLC Budget 2020/2021
One of the key items on this month’s agenda was to set the budget of the Office for Legal Complaints (OLC) for 2020/21.
Ahead of the Board meeting, the OLC had submitted a budget proposal of £14.949m, an increase of £2.603m (21%) over the current year budget of £12.346m. At the meeting, in recognition of the imminent arrival of a new Chair, and partly in light of the uncertainty caused by Covid-19, the OLC withdrew its proposed budget and presented a revised proposal for a standstill budget plus CPI inflation. The Board approved the updated proposal, although for different reasons. While acknowledging uncertainties caused by Covid-19, for the reasons set out extensively in the board paper, and which will be reflected in the minutes in due course, it considered that the original proposal did not fulfil the budget acceptance criteria.
The Board and the OLC representatives had a frank and open conversation about the Legal Ombudsman’s performance and we all agreed that it continued to be unacceptable. The OLC presented the issues and causes candidly to the Board and we had a constructive discussion about the critical improvements that must be made within the organisation and to services.
The Board noted that the Lord Chancellor’s final decision on the appointment of Elisabeth Davies as the new OLC Chair was due in the coming days. We anticipate that Elisabeth will seize the opportunity to drive forward the radical changes that are needed and move progress in the right direction.
The Act allows the OLC to apply to the LSB for a variation of the approved 2020/21 budget in-year, and approval of the revised proposal was made in the expectation that the OLC will make use of this facility. Any such application will, of course, be carefully considered on its own merits.
The Board considered proposals for enforcement and disciplinary oversight within the LSB’s regulatory performance assessment framework. The proposals were based on learning from approaches adopted by other regulators. The Board welcomed the approach and the proposals as a key part of our oversight function.
The LSB will require regulatory bodies to put effective and transparent quality assurance frameworks in place that demonstrate their disciplinary processes are rigorous and working effectively. This will ensure consistent, transparent, proportionate, reasonable and evidenced enforcement decisions are being taken.
We endorsed the need for the LSB to build ongoing assurance into the performance management framework and develop an audit process which will add to our toolkit of approaches in how we gain assurance. The processes will be designed to be flexible so that we can undertake proportionate, risk-based audits of other standards in the regulatory performance framework as well. We also agreed that any learnings should be shared with all regulatory bodies.
The next stage is to develop procedures – in collaboration with those regulators who are willing to help – and then implement them at an appropriate time.
We discussed our ongoing work to increase the transparency of our decision-making as a Board, advancing our earlier discussion at the September 2019 Board meeting. We now publish the agenda and papers for Board meetings in advance and I will continue to produce a post-Board blog detailing our conversations and decisions.
As the oversight regulatory body, we are keen to be more transparent – we understand the importance of making decisions openly. In order to explore this further, we all agreed that Board members would observe the open board meetings of other organisations. Although Covid-19 means we cannot observe these meetings in person, some meetings are live-streamed and recorded. The Board will consider the issue of open Board meetings further at a later date.
Legal Services Consumer Panel work programme
The Board welcomed Sarah Chambers, Chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel, to the meeting. Sarah presented the Consumer Panel’s planned work programme for 2020/21 – the third year of the Panel’s three-year strategy. Key projects for the year, included examining the existence of advice deserts in housing and immigration, the need for quality indicators in the legal services market as well as increased price transparency, and the ‘unbundling’ of legal services to separate a package of services into parts, so that consumers and legal services providers can agree what parts of the package the provider will provide. The Consumer Panel is also working closely with the LSB to establish a standing panel of members of the public that we can consult and use them to inform our work.
We all agreed that Covid-19 will disrupt legal services and that protecting vulnerable consumers must be a key focus over the coming months. The pandemic is already having an impact on consumers needing advice and legal services related to a range of issues including housing, employment and will-writing. The LSB and Consumer Panel agreed to work together to support consumers during this time.
We discussed the benefits of technology in providing access to justice for consumers, especially during Covid-19, whilst ensuring that those who do not have access to technology are not left behind. Indeed, we all committed to learning from the impact of Covid-19 to ensure we improve services for consumers.
With the focus of the Board meeting being largely on protecting consumers and transparency, the Board were disappointed to learn about problems with the governance of the Legal Choices website, which is run jointly by the regulators. Legal Choices is a vital resource for signposting consumers to appropriate services. In July 2019, the Bar Standard’s Board announced that it was to withdraw its funding from the website and at this meeting the Board noted a recent letter from the Solicitors Regulation Authority suggesting that the LSB takes ownership of Legal Choices.
We plan to discuss ways to support the implementation of the CMA recommendations for improved transparency at our meeting 23 April 2020.
We are continuing to make progress with developing a new strategy for the legal services sector which is shaped by a programme of stakeholder engagement. The strategy will define an agenda for legal services regulation as well as set out a clear strategy for the LSB’s work. Subject to Covid-19 developments, we plan to hold an event with sector leaders and key influencers in September 2020.
In relation to Covid-19, we will consider how best to address the issues that the sector is likely to face when we enter the recovery phase and the wider role that regulation might play in supporting and promoting economic recovery.
In the last two weeks I had discussions with Arden Partners, the Judicial Appointments Commission and Artificial Lawyer. It was interesting to hear these organisations’ priorities and discuss issues of mutual interest, such as technology, diversity and quality assurance.
If you have any views or information that you would like to share with us as part of our strategy development, please do not hesitate to get in touch.