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10 February, 2023
Chair’s Report from Dame Janet Paraskeva
This was the Council’s first meeting of 2023 and there was a busy agenda. We had hoped to welcome members of the Legal Services Board for a face to face joint board session and hope that this can be rearranged soon.
Setting standards for entry to the profession and maintaining high standards of competence after initial qualification is the foundation of regulation to protect consumers and the public interest. At this meeting the CLC reviewed four sets of proposals that are central to that standard-setting and maintenance.
The Council reviewed the outcome of the consultation on draft ethical principles for CLC lawyers. Those draft principles have been revised slightly in the light of very helpful responses to the consultation from the CLC’s Consumer Reference Group, the Legal Services Consumer Panel, and the Society of Licensed Conveyancers.
The new draft Ethical Principles now read as follows:
These principles will inform reviews of qualification standards, expectations for ongoing competence and the details standards set out in the Code of Conduct for CLC lawyers and indeed the entire handbook. A draft revised Code of Conduct is being prepared for further consultation
Qualification as a CLC lawyer
The CLC sets the standards for qualification as a CLC lawyer, the delivery and assessment of education to those standards is carried out independently of the CLC. Numbers of students have grown in recent years, but the sector still faces a shortage of qualified lawyers. The Council was therefore asked to consider some proposals for increasing the pipeline in addition to the marketing that is already taking place in collaboration with the education providers. Further work will not continue to identify new routes to qualification as a CLC lawyer.
Continuing Profession Development
Our consultation on new and significantly more demanding requirements for CPD closed shortly before the Council meeting. The Council reviewed consultation responses and agreed that work should now begin to set out detailed arrangements for a new CPD framework that will include some mandatory elements for individuals in certain roles in firms. It will also see a move away from a fixed number of hours per year to individuals taking responsibility for demonstrating how their CPD has met their particular development needs.
Changes to licence periods
The Council considered a proposal to align the licence period for CLC-regulated lawyers and practices to three years. This would not affect the annual fee payment cycle. This alignment could have practical benefits for licensing, monitoring and enforcement work by the CLC. A public consultation paper is being developed and will be reviewed by our Consumer Reference Group and Professional Reference Group prior to publication.
The work of the CLC
Council was able to review the CLC’s progress against the business plan at the end of the year. We were very pleased that 95% of the business plan activities had been delivered and the remaining 5% is on course for completion in 2023. We will publish a full report on 2022 during February.
Our strategy for 2023-2025 is published on our website as well as our business plan for this year. The Council also approved a budget for the year to deliver that business plan which enables the CLC to reduce costs slightly compared to the actual outturn for 2022.
We also reviewed the performance of our communications work in 2022, which continued to grow the CLC’s presence and impact in relevant media outlets. Our plans for 2023 include more face to face activity such a roadshows and possibly a conference following a focus on online activity for obvious reasons in recent years.
Monitoring, enforcement, and discipline
Council reviews quarterly updates on this activity, ensuring that operational performance is maintained in the programme of monitoring and enforcement and examining the progress of serious disciplinary cases that are in train using the internal Watchlist. The Council was very pleased to note that two serious matters were reaching their conclusions with hearings at the Adjudication Panel in January and February.
The meeting had begun with consideration of the Legal Service’s Board’s (LSB) Regulatory Performance Assessment of the CLC and the other front-line regulators. This was an important chance to look in the round at steps the CLC could take to meet suggestions from the LSB about changes to the way that we set out how we make decisions.
At the moment, the CLC sets out the reasons for decisions when we communicate them to the regulated community and stakeholders. Our reasoning and evidence are set out in consultation documents, press releases, direct communications such as our newsletter, webinars and roadshows.
To help those interested in the CLC’s decision-making process, the Council decided to explore possible changes to the way its proceedings are reported. That will include a review of the impact of publication of all policy development papers (which will now include input from our Consumer Reference Group), potential additions to the contents of minutes and links back to formal minutes from my report of each meeting.
The Council had already agreed last year that anyone who wishes may apply to attend Council meeting as an observer and request a copy of a Council paper that is not already published in full on the CLC’s website. This is reflected in our updated Publication Scheme.
We currently publish full findings of the Adjudication Panel, Enforcement Determination Notices and Letters of Rebuke but not other, lower-level, enforcement decisions of which there are many each year. As we have often explained, publication of lower-level sanctions that are imposed with no recourse to the Adjudication Panel would damage the assisted compliance approach the CLC takes and that serves consumers so well. A new report will be prepared looking at information about such lower-level sanction in aggregate and looking at trends.
The CLC lead work to improve consumer information since the report from the Competition and Markets Authority on the legal sector in 2016. The aim for the CLC, SRA and CILEx Regulation was to enable easy comparison between providers by setting shared standards for the information that practices are required to publish about price and service. More recently, the same group of regulators has been looking at the scope for further use of quality indicators and how to extend consumer use of comparison websites that make comparison even easier. A report with further actions will be published later this year.
It is good to see that this work is delivering change. The Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP) found, in its 2022 tracker survey that many more consumers are now shopping around for legal services, as this chart from their report shows.
In the autumn of 2022 LSCP has recently published two reports setting out proposals for the extension of information available to help consumers make better-informed choices of legal service provider, notably here: Standardisation of Consumer Information In Legal Services. The Council of the CLC reviewed progress on the Informed Choice agenda and the new suggestions from the LSCP alongside the LSB’s Statement on Consumer Empowerment.
Given the progress that has been made on consumer empowerment in relation to conveyancing and probate, the Council is of the view that the priority for action in the consumer interest in the conveyancing sector has changed.
Achieving the significant improvements to the home buying and selling process that are now in reach will deliver greater consumer benefit than incremental changes to consumer information about providers.
The learning from what has been achieved in relation to consumer information on conveyancing and probate services could be reviewed and applied to other legal services.