Supermarkets to sell legal advice with the groceries

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The Independent Online

Supermarkets could soon be able to sell shoplifters legal advice under plans to let lawyers work in high street shops.

Supermarkets could soon be able to sell shoplifters legal advice under plans to let lawyers work in high street shops.

In one of the most radical documents ever drawn up by the legal profession, the Law Society makes the case for lifting the current ban on businesses selling law directly to the public.

The move would allow supermarkets to employ solicitors to advise its customers in their stores in the same way they already offer banking facilities.

Yesterday a leading supermarket welcomed what it described as a "very innovative" idea. A spokeswoman for Tesco said the company was considering the proposal carefully. "This sounds like an interesting idea which may well be something for the future."

A free market for the sale of law, the authors of the discussion document argue, could also unleash the huge retail resources of businesses "such as Virgin or Abbey National".

A relaxation of the rules which prevent solicitors in employed businesses from advising the public directly could also stimulate a massive re-investment in the law and the new legal service companies in which lawyers would have a secure career structure.

The public would then be able to choose between a business like Tesco Lawyers or a traditional high street solicitors' practice.

"By and large, retailers, insurers, banks and building societies as groups meet the expectations of their customers. Their names are known to and trusted by their customers," said the paper.

"If we believe in professional standards we ought not to be afraid to put our belief to the test by giving the consumer the choice," the paper suggested.

Ed Nally, chairman of the working party which drew up the report on employed solicitors, said selling legal advice to shoplifters highlighted potential serious conflicts of interest and social justice issues. "After all, supermarkets don't like shoplifters so it would not be in the interest of the supermarket to offer the best possible legal advice to someone caught stealing on its premises," he said.

"The independence of the solicitors' profession is much cherished and should not be given up lightly."

Nevertheless he added that there was a "spirit of deregulation" in the Law Society. "The question is do we go with it lightly or go the whole hog."

Christopher Digby-Bell, a Law Society councillor for the City, said: "This is an example of access to justice, which the Law Society has been promoting, and you can't get better access to justice than this." But he added: "I think this is probably a step too far. There is considerable value in the brand of the solicitor and he Law Society should not sell the profession short."

Janet Paraskeva, chief executive of the Law Society, is more conservative about the possible ways forward. She said: "The world has changed since the current regulations were drafted. It is more market orientated and consumers are more demanding. The professions are reviewing the way in which they operate and the Law Society is keen to ensure that rules do not necessarily get in the way of solicitors' ability to service the public."

The proposals, which will be voted on by the Law Society council in March, include three possible ways forward, the move towards total deregulation being the most radical.