A word about Wales – what is and isn’t devolved

Elisabeth DaviesIt was St David’s Day at the weekend and so, in addition to having my annual bout of home sickness having spent the first 18 years of my life in mid Wales, I inevitably found myself reflecting on a number of meetings the Panel held last month in Cardiff.  The Panel’s remit covers England and Wales and we’ve always been very mindful of our responsibilities in both nations but it’s not always been straightforward.  Against the backdrop of the mantra “legal services are not devolved” it can be difficult to understand the differences and you come across a fair amount of cynicism with some claiming differences are more exaggerated than real.

The Panel has always been mindful of this and as ever we’ve tried to use a consistent approach to addressing these issues – focussing first and foremost on what this means for the consumer and gathering evidence.  Our annual tracker survey, the fieldwork for which is currently underway, includes a Welsh booster sample. Previous surveys have highlighted some differences, particularly around choosing a lawyer: Welsh respondents were less likely than English respondents to believe that they had a choice of provider; just 6% of the Welsh sample said they had shopped around compared to 20% of the English sample; and local offices were a more important factor in the Welsh sample but less important for consumers in England.  Speak to anyone from Wales and this last point is taken as read given the lack of public transport, particularly outside the main towns.

Not surprisingly, these were the very issues that formed the backdrop to our meetings last month, which included welcome sessions with the Law Society in Wales and Citizens Advice Cymru.  The messages were clear – the rise in litigants in person, the impact of welfare reforms, cuts to advice giving in Wales and legal aid changes are all having an impact on access to justice in Wales.

One thing which also became very clear was the importance of the ‘jagged edged settlement’ and the impact this could have on Welsh consumers of legal services.  Wales currently has conferred powers, which means anything which is not specifically conferred to the Welsh Assembly is reserved to Westminster.  This has created a situation with ‘jagged edges’ of responsibility for lawyers, and it may not always be clear when the law is different.  Take an area like housing law and you’ll see how different it is depending on whether you live in England or in Wales.

This raises all sorts of issues but what’s of particular concern for us is what this means for services which are delivered remotely; by phone or online.  What happens if a service provider doesn’t check where you live and therefore which jurisdiction applies?  Could you end up getting the wrong legal advice? We’ll need to watch this situation closely in our work this year as we consider the role of online tools in legal services.

On Monday the Silk Commission published its report on part two of its remit on the wider powers of the National Assembly for Wales.  It has recommended that a reserved powers model (such as that in place in Scotland) would allow a better system of devolution in Wales: “A model which sets out what is not devolved is more certain, stable and coherent than a model which sets out what is”.  We’ll be watching to see how this recommendation is received.  Irrespective of the model that delivers, certainty and coherency are essential if consumers in Wales are to have the confidence they need in legal services.