rblog

In with the new?

By George Hawkins on 16 February 2015

As a regulator, it never hurts to think about what we do and why we do it. OK, we punish wrong- doing and provide consumer protection. But is that all there is to legal regulation? What about the fact some consumers find it difficult to access justice? Or the chasm of understanding between consumers and the laws they're governed by? What about a market where competition is stifled? Do those things sound like something we should care about? Well we do. 

The Legal Services Act 2007 provides us with a set of objectives we should take into account when performing our work. If you are not familiar with the objectives, some of them may surprise you. They include improving access to justice, promoting the interests of consumers, promoting competition and increasing public understanding of legal rights and duties. 

We want to support these objectives through our programme of regulatory reform, which seeks to ease the regulatory burden on firms. Steps such as the introduction of Multi-Disciplinary Practices or our consultation on reforming the separate business rule will help ensure we're not a barrier to new ways of working. But ultimately, it is the providers themselves who can unlock legal services and deliver justice to the many, not the few. 

A word we hear bandied around a lot when discussing any economic market is "innovation". It seems to me that there isn't a new business in the country that doesn't claim to be innovative. But what does it actually mean? And can innovation in legal services begin to make a difference to some of the things we care about? 

Together with the Legal Services Board, we're conducting a large-scale research project on innovation in legal services. The University of Warwick will be carrying out the research and many of our regulated firms will be invited to take part through short telephone interviews. The findings will help inform us about what the market looks like and whether firms are being innovative in providing new or improved services to clients. It will also look into some of the perceived barriers to innovation. We will share the findings of the survey with you later in the year but for now let's get back to thinking about what innovation is. 

A couple of us from the SRA recently attended Legal Voice's conference on Innovation in the delivery of legal services. Topics included a live demonstration of an on-line divorce service, a Citizens Advice Bureau that also runs a library, and how good legal advice can be good for your health! It was an interesting day but I guess the key thing we took away was that innovation means more than using new technology - be it a glossy new IT system or a marketing app. You probably won't even know when you see it. But it can be broken down into component parts. 

Ask yourselves a few questions. Are you open to new ideas? Do you ever act on them? Have you recently started delivering a new product or service? Or changed the way you deliver products and services? Are you finding yourself fulfilling a need you once didn't even know was out there? Chances are you are being innovative. If the answer is no, then that's fine too of course. But it may be interesting to know why. 

Innovation is only one strand of increasing access to justice, consumer understanding and competition in legal services, we understand that. But if you are contacted by the researchers over the next few weeks, we'd really appreciate you taking the time to speak to them. The better understanding we have of the market, the more able we'll be to regulate proportionately, fulfilling all of our objectives, not just those we are perhaps best known for.

George Hawkins is a Senior Technical Advisor at the Solicitors Regulation Authority.