A regulatory answer to a different question

What do consumer centred services really look like?

Elisabeth DaviesWhat do consumer or client centred services really look like in legal services? Coming from a background in healthcare I know what patient-centred care means and I know that it’s not achieved through a narrow healthcare model.  Once the patient is at the heart of informed decision-making then their care pathway is likely to involve nurses, GPs and consultants along with self-management and advice and support from the voluntary sector.

So what does it really mean to put the consumer at the heart of legal services? At a workshop last week we brought together the legal regulators, the Law Society and consumer organisations along with representatives from health and financial services regulators.  We asked what legal services might look like in 2020 but I think what we were really asking is ‘What’s the regulatory response required to improve access to justice?’ How should the regulators, including the LSB, be responding to the myriad of changes taking place in legal services?

For me what’s increasingly clear is that the regulators can no longer only consider the regulated market.  If you’re serious about improving access to justice then you need to look at the how the whole system is working, and will work in the future, around the consumer.  You can’t come up with the right regulatory response unless you fully understand the whole.  And the whole is getting more and more diverse.

OLC Chair Steve Green was right last week to outline an ambition for his Ombudsman service to cover unregulated providers of legal services and those offering legal advice as part of a wider package.  This isn’t just about broadening their remit but about acknowledging that, if how consumers access legal services is changing, then access to redress via a legal ombudsman scheme needs to change and keep up.

Significantly, this is not just about a different perspective or looking at things through a different lens.  Once you fully understand the whole you might just find that you’re coming up with a different regulatory response.  This is exactly the process the Panel went through when looking at the role of McKenzie Friends.  We started by putting the litigant in person at the centre and then mapped out the different support and advice routes they could use to access justice.  As a result our proposed regulatory response had to take account of what Judges could do, along with consumers, existing law and McKenzie Friends themselves. You might not agree with our conclusion but giving proper attention to the broader picture means you not only ask different questions but you come up with different answers.

Regulation is sometimes accused of being a blunt tool but it needn’t be.  Sometimes it’s offered as an answer to the wrong question.  In the face of so much change, the risk is that the legal regulators don’t ask the right questions.