David Prosser: At last it's time to bring lawyers to book

Thank heavens that the Government is finally seeing sense and launching an independent complaints service for people who have a dispute with a solicitor. The Law Society, which currently regulates the legal sector, is predictably concerned by the Department for Constitutional Affairs' view that a new watchdog is necessary. But this reform is long overdue.

For years, consumer groups have argued that the Law Society takes too long to deal with complaints and, more seriously, that consumers don't always get a fair deal. The Law Society also acts as the professional body of solicitors, so complainants often feel - rightly or wrongly - that they are victims of a whitewash, with lawyers watching each other's backs.

It doesn't really matter whether people are right to be so cynical. In an area as important as legal services, a complaints service must be totally scrupulous, but it must also be seen to be fair. Otherwise, people's faith in the legal profession will be dangerously undermined - many consumers already feel that there is little point complaining about the service that they have received from a solicitor.

In the financial-services industry, there was a similar system of self-regulation until 1997, when the new Labour government launched the all-powerful Financial Services Authority and the independent Financial Ombudsman Service. And yet, until now, the same standards have not been applied to the law.

An improved complaints service is also crucial because the Law Society does not currently police the activities of the growing number of claims companies. These firms, which encourage people to take legal action in order to win compensation, often on a no-win, no-fee basis, sometimes provide an excellent service, but there are also cowboy operators. Despite suspicions about such sharks - and concern about Britain following the US model of a compensation culture - the Government is anxious to encourage claims-handling companies, as part of its ongoing efforts to slash the Legal Aid bill. But it's no good asking people to forgo state support for legal action unless they can trust the legal representatives to whom they must otherwise turn.

It would help if people had better access to legal advice. Currently, most people have no idea how to find a solicitor. The Government is keen to allow lawyers to team up with other professionals, including accountants and surveyors, to provide "one-stop shops" offering a range of legal and non-legal services. This principle needs to be extended. There is no reason why banks, or even supermarkets, should not be allowed to launch their own legal practices, as long as their solicitors are policed as effectively as stand-alone lawyers. There was a time when you could find a firm of local solicitors on most high streets. Enabling, say, Tesco, which already offers comprehensive financial services, to branch out into legal work would provide better access to the law for huge numbers of people.

How much longer can the farce of Equitable Life's legal action against its former directors and advisers go on? So far, the life insurer has dropped a £700m claim against its former auditor, Ernst & Young; half of a £1.8bn claim against 14 former directors; and the cases against four of these ex-employees. Yet Equitable is still racking up legal costs against 10 former directors, in the hope that it won't be saddled with their lawyers' bills. How the insurer thinks it can possibly win these cases, having dropped so many identical actions already, is impossible to know.

Every penny that Equitable spends fighting legal action comes out of policyholders' funds. Its customers can ill afford further erosion of their savings.

d.prosser@independent.co.uk

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
Louis van Gaal would have been impressed with Darren Fletcher’s performance against LA Galaxy during Manchester United’s 7-0 victory
football
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Sport
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
sport
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
Sport
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
News
Isis fighters travel in a vehicle as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Life and Style
fashionLatex dresses hit the catwalk to raise awareness for HIV and Aids
Travel
travel
Finacial products from our partners
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Money & Business

    Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

    £600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

    The benefits of being in Recruitment at SThree...

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Comission: SThree: SThree, International Recruitme...

    Test Analyst - UAT - Credit Risk

    £280 - £300 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Test Analyst, Edinburgh, Credit Ris...

    Trainee Recruitment Consultants - Banking & Finance

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

    Day In a Page

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform