Recent research from the Solicitors Regulation Authority showed that less than half of those surveyed anticipated that they could afford to instruct a lawyer.
“It is the biggest problem facing the legal profession,” said Paul Philip (pictured), the authority’s chief executive, who did not shy from taking some responsibility. “In part, this is a failure of regulation,” he added.
Philip prescribed “more competition” as the cure for the public’s fear of high costs from taking legal advice. “More competition, and more information for consumers is what is required,” he said.
Philip was speaking at a conference in London that represented the authority’s latest bid to raise its profile and to ramp up its campaign for full independence from the Law Society, the body that represents 130,000 solicitors in England and Wales. He said that the vast majority of consumers had the perception that the SRA was “the Law Society in disguise”. Some 11,000 complaints from clients are received about solicitors annually, but, said Philip, “as soon as those complainants find out that the SRA is part of the same organisation as the Law Society they have a crisis of confidence in the system”.
Provisions in the Legal Services Act 2007 gave the regulator functional independence from the society; however, it is still technically part of the same body. Philip has spent much of the past year lobbying for full separation. He said last week that the current situation resulted in complainants generally perceiving that “an old boys’ club” was operating.
A leading pollster told the conference – which was titled Question of Trust – that public confidence in lawyers fell in the middle of the spectrum. When asked whether they considered lawyers to be trustworthy, Ben Page, the chief executive of Ipsos Mori, said that 29 per cent said “no” compared with 27 per cent who replied “yes”. The remainder were ambivalent.
However, Page provided the SRA with a boost, returning research showing that 82 per cent of the public backed the idea of a completely independent regulator for solicitors.