|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
The regulatory objectives are, of course, expressed very broadly. There is a lack of guidance on when it would be appropriate to intervene in the work of approved regulators. This is rightly a cause of concern both for the Bar Council and for the Bar-approved regulator, the Bar Standards Board (BSB). The approved regulator may have to exercise discretion in balancing the objectives and to decide that one objective takes precedence over another, in which case there is likely to be an adverse effect on one of the objectives. Consumer protection or the rule of law may, for example, need to take precedence over
6 Dec 2006 : Column 1195
My last point relates to the relationship between the proposed Office for Legal Complaints (OLC) and the Bar Standards Board, which, as noble Lords have already heard, is the regulator of the Bar and has a lay chairman. I strongly support what my noble friends Lord Neill and Lord Borrie said about this. My concern arises from a one-size-fits-all scheme for dealing with legal complaints separately from issues of discipline. Clause 154(1) specifically states:
Under the scheme, the Bar Standards Board, for instance, will have the responsibility of dealing with issues of discipline arising from the behaviour of a barrister, whereas there is an entirely separate complaints procedure through the OLC, which can provide redress but may not take any disciplinary action against the respondent to the claim. In some cases, complaints may have nothing whatever to do with discipline, but life is seldom kept in neat compartments. In many casesone noble Lord has said that the figure is about 70 per centthe complaint by a dissatisfied litigant against a barrister includes an issue of discipline. Under the scheme, the discipline part of the complaint will go to the Bar Standards Board. On the same facts, the BSB will adjudicate on the part of the complaint that relates to discipline, and the OLC will adjudicate on the part that does not affect discipline.
What happens if one body accepts the complaint and the other does not? It is rather like two referees, one of whom gives the player a red card while the other says that the player was not to blame. I think I am right in saying that, in Adelaide, Strauss was out according to the umpire but the television image showed that he was not out. In that case, the umpire was in control, and Strauss was out, but if there are inconsistent results in which one board accepts a complaint and the other does not, what are the complainant or the public to think? I am not talking of a matter which was sufficient to warrant redress as a complaint but not sufficient for it to be a disciplinary matter. I have in mind a much more basic point: that the facts of an incident involving the complainant and the barristerI repeat, the factsare accepted by one board and rejected by another. Apart from anything else, there will be unnecessary duplication and considerable extra expense, but access to the ombudsman would not address this problem. I urge the Government to look again at the interrelationship between the Bar Standards Board and the OLC. In my view, a power is required in the OLC to delegate in suitable cases a dual complaint to the BSB. There should be an amendment to that effect and Clause 154(1) should be deleted.
Lord Brennan: My Lords, I declare the interest of having been a chairman of the Bar during the passage of the Access to Justice Bill and a practising barrister. However, I must reassure noble Lords that my years in your Lordships House have nurtured a complete sense of objectivity about my profession, which I hope to display in my remarks. Regulation is not an end in itself; it is a means by which the consumer or public interest can be balanced in protecting it through the way in which a profession or a financial system operates.
There is no spiritual context to regulation; it is a mechanical system operated by people to help others. So, when we look at this Bill, which I welcome, we should test a new set of regulations about an important profession against the following criteria: are they necessary, proportionate and cost-effective? Do they avoid doing irreparable damage to the profession and service which they seek to regulate? Is this Bill and the new regulation of the entire legal profession, necessary? I say yes, and I am gratified to note that the Bar Council has plainly stated that it supports this Bill. Such concerns that it has go to individual components of it, not in any way to its principle, and I agree. I do not agree that the regulation of a profession should be mixed with its representation. In this day and age they should be separate and be seen to operate separately. This Bill seeks to achieve that. I agree that the profession should be accountable to a Legal Services Board.
I want to reassure the House that my profession, the Bar, recognised that some time ago. In January 2006, we created the Bar Standards Board, which was specifically designed to protect consumer interests and maintain professional standards. It is chaired by a lay person, who is a director of the National Consumer Council. The balance of lay members and professionals on it is entirely reasonable. Its purpose is to give the consumer confidence in the regulation of my profession. That has already happened; the arrangements have been successful. My side of the profession is already doing that which this Bill seeks to develop.
The next and fundamental question about why this Bill is necessary relates to alternative business structures. I very much regret the emphasis placed on the introduction of financein capital lettersto law practices by so many of my personal friends in the law. There is an entirely different aspect of alternative business structures, which has thus far been entirely neglected. We must accept that legal aid has reached its ceiling. The impact of that on the provision of legal services nationally is really serious. There is no reason, in my opinion, why alternative business structures cannot be developed to operate legal practices to favour the poor and the disadvantagedfor instance, through social enterprise systems joining in with law firms, and trade unions doing the sameto achieve a new means of ensuring access to justice.
The Bill is therefore necessary, but is it proportionate? That will be tested in Committee by probing and by amendments, but I raise three points.
6 Dec 2006 : Column 1197
We are also concerned about it at a very practical level. A small group of lawyerssolicitors and barristersgenerate for this country in invisible earnings sums approaching £1.5 billion a year. We are the best international lawyers in the world and people come to us and our courts because of our quality. That profit to this country could be put at risk if the images given by the Bill are of interference with the independence which leads to our getting so much work from abroad. Lawyers from other countries, if they can, will seek to use anything they find in our future debates and in the future context of the Bill to undermine our position in international markets. So it is an important question.
My second point concerns the Office for Legal Complaints and its relationship to authorised regulators. If I may be allowed to state the obvious, a solicitor will administer your legal problem, which may or may not go to court; a barrister will advise you, sometimes when there is no question of going to court, but mostly when there is. The two functions are very different. The solicitors function raises, in its daily context, the provision of the kind of services which the consumer expects to be given at a proper standard, without which he or she will complain. A barristers function is to give adviceoften unpalatable, often harsh and often difficult to acceptand if the case goes wrong, the way it was dealt with is never forgotten. This gives rise to a different kind of complaintnot He kept me waiting months for an opinion, not He charged too much and did not tell me that he was going to, but He did not look after me professionally.
The ordinary person makes no distinction between the quality of service and the professional standard which is subject to discipline. What will the Office for Legal Complaints do if it deprives the Bar of dealing with the two kinds of complaints? In 70 per cent of complaints to the Bar system, both types are inextricably mixed. Are we to protect, I say sardonically and intentionally, the consumer in relation to Bar complaints by having parallel proceedings for service and discipline? Is the consumer to be exposed to involvement in two processes when there could be one? If the processes are not to be parallel, which comes first? It is not a position that any reasonable consumer will expect to be put in. The OLC cannot deal with discipline effectively; the profession can. The Bar is simply seeking flexibilityflexibility that serves the consumernot any special position.
My last point concerns the alternative business structure. I invite my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, during the conduct of the Bill, to make it abundantly clear that the regulatory objectives of Clause 1 apply to all alternative business
6 Dec 2006 : Column 1198
On cost-effectiveness, Which? says that consumer complaint handling in the law is a number-one priority, and that consumers deserve quick, fair and accessible treatment. I have no doubt that the Department for Constitutional Affairs will be investigating seriously how the new system will work so as to be reasonably quick, always fairin so far as one can beand accessible, not drowning the consumer in a barrage of paper passing between the consumer, the person complained against and the office, and seemingly never coming to an end. That is the risk and it has to be avoided. I cannot imagine that it is seriously contemplated that we can look forward to the assimilation of the failed Law Society systemsame people, same arrangementsinto a new system. I am sure that that will not happen.
If it will cost £20 million a year to run the LSB and the OLC and more than £20 million to set up the OLC, we are talking about serious money; we expect serious value for the consumer. In Clauses 111 to 118, which create the Office for Legal Complaints, and Schedule 15, I looked for the ultimate sanction. What happens if the system is not working and there is no sanction? I hope that we would not have to look forward to an amendment to an Act of Parliament to change a failing system if it were irreparably failing. I also note that in the structure there is control by the Legal Services Board, but who is to answer for it if it fails? The people who run it and the Legal Services Board? The Secretary of State? If it goes wrong, who can the public look to? I hope that that will not arise; if it works successfully, we might want to find out who has got it right.
My final point is about the impact on the profession that is being regulated. The phrase legal services provider is linguistically and intellectually inane. We are talking about professionalslawyers, doctors. They should give the client the capacity to trust in the ability and service they provide as professionals. That is a fundamental part of our British way of life. Those of us who travel abroad in a legal capacity are always told, You must really treasure your legal system. Do you know how much we think of it, how much we value it, how much we would like to have it?. Let us not, in discussing problems like this, forget the much greater importance to us of our legal profession, our system of law, than the essentially important consumer interest.
Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract: My Lords, I should like to speak briefly in the gap. I shall be talking about miners and I refer to my interest as declared in my speeches of 11 July and 23 November of this year.
It is beyond doubt that the miners and many other people have been let down by some members of the legal profession. I highlighted this in my speech of 23 November so I have no need to go over it again this evening. I was pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, referred to it. I took no great pleasure in having to name people who, in my view, had been dishonest with some of the miners and their widows, but I know of no other way of trying to get justice for these people. I welcome the Bill and hope that we might reach a situation where regulation will put a stop to the practices that have been followed by a minority of the legal profession.
I have always been keen to ensure that all consumers receive good service from the Law Society. Unfortunately, this has not been the case, and the poor way in which the Law Society has handled complaints about miners compensation cases is an example. The Law Societys complaints office at Leamington Spa has over the years been recognised as a failing organisation; this year it was fined by the Legal Services Complaints Commissioner. It is therefore imperative to restore consumer confidence that the new Office for Legal Complaints, as mentioned in the Bill, is truly a new body and not simply a transfer of current staff and management to the new organisation. It is essential that people such as miners are confident that their cases have been dealt with expeditiously and fairly. There should be regulations to deal with the solicitors who have been reducing miners compensation after they have been paid a fee of £2,100 for each case by the Government.
Only a few weeks ago, a gentleman who lives not far from me wrote to me and sent me a cheque. I wondered what it was all about and rang him up. He said, I have just received a cheque, which I have sent to you. It was for 37p, to a miner suffering from bronchitis and emphysema. I hope that regulations under the Bill will put a stop to that kind of practice.
Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, this has been a truly remarkable debate. In the compass of less than three hours, it has ranged widely and penetratingly across the issues raised by this substantive Bill, which will have a profound effect on the handling of consumer complaints about the provision of legal services, the structuring of the legal profession and the regulation of legal services. It will have an effect also on the perception of the profession.
If I have any note of complaint, it is not about the way in which the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor presented these issues; it is rather that, at some points in the debate, there was an implication that the interests of the law profession and consumers were almost ineluctably opposed. The failure of a part of the profession to provide an adequate system for handling consumer complaints, of which the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, spoke trenchantly, is not an indication of anything that should lead to the legal profession being written off as being incapable of reform. That is clear in the response to the Bill from
6 Dec 2006 : Column 1200
The remarkable thing about the Billit is in some ways historicis the detailed pre-legislative consideration that it has been given by the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral. Candidly, I doubt that our parliamentary procedures are apt to deal with a Bill of such detail, complexity and size as effectively as has been done in this instance by the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, the members of which have uniformly testified to his superior chairmanship.
The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor mentioned the pressing timetable under which the committee operated. I have no doubt that working to a timetable of eight weeks, as the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, said, presented its members with an extraordinarily difficult task, but it is clear that they have performed a high public service in the work that they have done. I have no doubt, too, that there will be further opportunities during the Bills passage through the House to raise points that may have come to light too late for the committee to have been able fully to consider in its deliberations.
The general welcome for the purposes of the Bill is clear. It has united those such as the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who spoke on behalf of consumers and who still hopes to see improvements made to the Bill to strengthen some of its provisions, and those who would like to be careful not to undermine the strength of the legal professions and their perceived independencetheir independence in the eyes of those overseas who look covetously on their business. The legal professions generally provide an unrivalled service.
I suppose that I should have declared a past, if not a present, interest in these issues, for I practised briefly at the Bar and served as a consultant for an American law firm for many years and as a consumer Minister in the late 1970s, for which I did not consider myself disqualified by virtue of my legal interest or training.
The underlying question about regulation is whether it in some way jeopardises the independence of the new body. Is the Legal Services Board truly independent as it is being constituted? One can make too much of appointments being separated from the Secretary of State, but I cannot quite understand why the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor takes such strong exception to consulting the Lord Chief Justice, as was proposed by Sir David Clementi. I cannot see that that consultation process would alter the perception of the work of the Legal Services Board, and I hope that the proposal will be reconsidered.
Attention has been drawn by a number of those who have contributed so thoughtfully to this debate to the extraordinary number of times that the Bill provides for the intervention of the Secretary of State in the work of the Legal Services Board. We were assisted by the arithmetic of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, who said that these powers could be exercised on 288 separate occasions. I believe that the noble and
6 Dec 2006 : Column 1201
Will the Secretary of State contemplate importing regulatory principles into the Bill, particularly that of proportionality? This could quieten some of the concerns that have been expressed about the necessarily wide and sweeping circumstances in which it is possible for the Legal Services Board to intervene. Another concern may beI believe that it has been expressed by the Bar Councilthat there is no direct provision for a right of appeal to the High Court on the conclusion on regulation by the Legal Services Board. I understand that recourse to judicial review will be available, but it may be thought that under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights it is necessary to go further. Although that point has not been made so far in the debate, I would be interested to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, when she winds up, say whether she thinks that an Article 6 issue arises. That applies also to the provisions on the complaints procedures.
Several noble Lords mentioned another important point. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor in his response to the Joint Committee indicated that he was considering the issue of the trigger as a regulatory action by the Legal Services Board since it should clearly not be set too low. I hope that that will be animadverted on in the winding up.
The single entry point for the complainant is very important. The complexities of service provision, cutting across all the different professions and organisations, make the system difficult for a lay man, as anyone who has served in another place will know. The only difficulty that I have in understanding how this is intended to work in practice is in respect of a complaint that is clearly about professional conduct. The natural route would be to the authorised regulatory body, but that cannot necessarily provide redress. Is it the view of the Government, and will it be clear in the Bill, that such complaints, although they will be ultimately handled by the professional regulatory bodies, should be channelled through the Office for Legal Complaints? Lay complainants will not necessarily have a view about whether or not it is appropriate to go to the professional bodies because the matter was primarily about conduct. It would be helpful to hear what the Government have in mind.
The issue of redress has been raised again in the context of the appropriateness or otherwise of the ceiling of £20,000. I found the argument of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor very compelling on that point. As the power is being taken in the Bill to raise that level, considerations of its being too low might later cause changes to be made. But at this stage, in the light of the evidence on £15,000 as a summit of compensation awarded for legal inadequacies, what the Bill provides makes a good deal of sense. I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, on that point.
The issue of who is to pay for the complaint is not so satisfactory. The suggestion that the burden should be borne entirely by the polluter seems somewhat doubtful. I have been able to find no suggestion in the Bill, although I have not combed it in such a way that would make me confident about my sleuth work, of how to deal with the problem of vexatious or frivolous complaints. Anyone who has had to deal with public complaints is quite aware that there are such complaintsand it would be wrong that the full burden of that should be borne by the person against whom the complaint was made. That raises the wider question whether there should be some sort of compensation fund. I look forward with interest to hearing what the Minister has to say about the Governments consideration of that issue, which does not lie clearly on the face of the Bill.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|