What is the consumer interest?

Using the consumer principles

Elisabeth DaviesAs a Consumer Panel whose very existence was created by an Act with an explicit intention to place the interests of consumers at the heart of legal services regulation, one of the questions we most often get asked is ‘What does the consumer interest actually mean?’

In breaking all the rules of good communication, I can start by telling you what it doesn’t mean.  Despite the concerns of some senior commentators it doesn’t mean the legal profession adopting a form of “unreflective consumer fundamentalism” or the emergence of a “cult of consumerism”.  Such labels of extremism are frustrating given the original basis of the legal services reforms.

What’s so clear from the Panel’s research to date is that consumers are not material, amoral, selfish and driven by price when they purchase legal services.  But if consumers are misunderstood then as a Panel we accept some responsibility to describe what does motivate consumers and to explain what the consumer interest means.

In recent reviews of legal services some of the legal regulators have indicated that the Panel should be doing more to actively help them with their consumer engagement work.   The smaller regulators in particular openly struggle with the time, capacity and resources to do this.  We’ve always been very clear that our job can’t be to do consumer engagement for the legal regulators but we do want to move the debate forward in a constructive way and we also want to provide some usable resources if we can.

Like many consumer organisations, the Consumer Panel uses a set of seven principles to help us assess where the interests of consumers lie on any given issue: Access; Choice; Safety/Quality; Information; Fairness; Representation; Redress.  We think that the legal regulators would benefit from using these principles as a framework to help them develop policy.  The principles provide useful reference points that can aid the development of policy in a consistent and transparent way, identify any differences between the consumer and citizen interest, and to clearly communicate policy positions.

Last week we ran a workshop with staff from the LSB to test a consumer principles toolkit we are developing based on the seven principles. We hope this will help the regulators work out what the consumer interest means for the issues they are working on. We ran a similar event with council members and staff at the CLC a fortnight earlier.   In considering a number of current regulatory challenges and issues, the toolkit really helped in drawing out just how nuanced the consumer interest is.  And not surprisingly it highlighted the potential trade offs that often have to be made between the seven principles – but that’s just it, it ‘highlighted’ them so immediately it gives you the chance for open and transparent decision-making, addressing complexities head on.

Seeing the principles in action was a reminder for me that no profession is immune to societal change.  The consumer principles we use can be traced back to a speech made by President Kennedy to the US Congress in 1962.  The principles remain valid and current, but much has changed in society, including how today’s consumers are less deferential to experts.  Professionals must learn how to meet their expectations based on an informed discussion of their needs, rather than just do what they think is right.

I’ve made many a comparison with health services in my time as Chair of the Panel – while the medical profession is on a journey from ‘doctor knows best’ to active patient involvement, in legal services paternalistic attitudes are still very apparent.  Using the consumer principles toolkit is a chance to move beyond this and I hope the profession will make the most of the opportunity to use the toolkit when we publish it in January.