Clause 14

Legal Services Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 14th June 2007.

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Offence to carry on a reserved legal activity if not entitled

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of John Mann John Mann PPS (Rt Hon Richard Caborn, Minister of State), Department for Culture, Media & Sport

I have two observations to make about the clause. The impersonating of a solicitor can lead to an individual being locked up and further increase the pressures on the prison community. Clearly, that is in order but, as for solicitors being disciplined, last year there were 743 matters against 1,094 individuals that had a disciplinary issue recorded against a solicitor and a further 495 matters involved 529 individuals that referred to other bodies, including the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal and the Association of Chief Police Officers.

Often, such matters do not need to be put in the public domain. For example, disapprovals, warnings, reprimands and severe reprimands can be kept private and confidential. The public—even the initial complainant who has provided information— need not be, and often is not, informed of that. Does the Minister consider that the issue needs to be looked at further even though the law is more than protecting the solicitor or other legal professional as it rightly does under the clause with appropriate strict measures? I commend her on that. We must also ensure that in a large number of cases—much more than has been suggested in Committee—such matters should be made public.

My second point concerns when the Government have acted as an employer through the Department of Trade and Industry in coal mining cases. There have been several examples when people have gone to those  whom they believe to be solicitors and the Government have entertained cases being brought forward as ifon a common law basis, including more than 10,000 industrial deafness cases brought by a private company called Vendside Ltd. People often think that theyhave a solicitor representing them when they do not. Should not the Government look at their own practises that may be encouraging people whom some of my constituents, and many others, believe to be impersonating solicitors? That is apparent both in the hearing loss claims and in respect of claims handlers, who people are still coming to me about, believing them to be solicitors when they are not, who have been allowed to take cases to the Government under the coal mining claims handling agreement.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

Once the Bill becomes law, does the Minister envisage that she or I, or anybody, would be able to go to a website and check the name of somebody who said that they were John Mann or Simon Hughes, for example, and were competent as a probate solicitor, or whatever? Will there be one place where people can check on an up-to-date, guaranteed-to-be-correct database whether people are approved and regulated? Again, if we are trying to make life easy, we need a list, giving details of who is legitimately carrying out the activities, which can always be relied on, then people would be much less likely to carry on activities illegally and end up in the courts as a result.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice

I just want to make the Committee aware that the penalties are consistent with those in the Compensation Act 2006 in respect of regulated claims management. Criminal convictions are a matter of public record and in that sense would be available to all. I cannot go as far as the hon. Gentleman has asked me to and guarantee that the relevant information would be available or that people could see on a website whether a person has the right to carry out a reserved legal activity. However, that matter runs parallel with another that he raised earlier, about people being able to know when they walk through the solicitor’s door what individuals do. People can check their solicitor’s credentials by going to the Law Society’s website. It maintains a list of all solicitors that are properly qualified. This part of the Bill extends that provision to cover everyone involved in the new framework.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

If I want somebody to do some plumbing, I know that the person who comes to do the central heating boiler, or whatever, will need to conform with the CORGI registration scheme, under which plumbers are CORGI-registered. Again, I should like the Minister to reflect on whether the objective should be for people to be able to check at any time whether anybody in the legal services field is, on that date, registered to do the job on the official list. Data systems are never perfect. However, given that the purpose of the Bill is to establish an umbrella in relation to reserved legal activities, with the Legal Services Board regulating all the people involved, the consumer interest must be that people should be able to go to one place and should not have to duck and dive. We are talking about people who are not familiar with  the places the professionals inhabit and do not necessarily understand the distinction. Perhaps the Minister could reflect on that, because if we could achieve that it would benefit the whole system.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice

I am happy to consider a simpler way in which that could be achieved.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.