In February 2022, JUSTICE responded to the Legal Services Board Consultation on Ongoing Competence. In doing so, JUSTICE drew upon findings and recommendations made within its Understanding Courts report. In that report, JUSTICE explored the role that legal professionals play in ensuring that any person who comes before the court – be it as a defendant, claimant, witness, or juror – can understand and engage in the court process. Our research has revealed a disconnection between professionals and lay users in court, with the at-times chaotic nature of proceedings creating a culture that marginalises the public using our courts.
JUSTICE supported the overall spirit of the Consultation in acknowledging that the ongoing competence of legal professionals is central to ensuring that high standards are maintained within the profession and that the needs of all clients can be met. We agree with the conclusions of LSB that whilst numerous measures are in place to allow legal regulators to ensure those entering the profession are competent, there are far fewer checks in place to ensure that those already in the profession continue to provide a high quality, professional and safe service for their clients.
JUSTICE considers that innovations in training, methodology and new ways of thinking about the lawyer-client relationship are continually developing. For example, in our Understanding Courts report, we recommended that all lawyers must be trained in the skills to identify, and adapt their communication style to suit, any additional support needs that the client or lay person may have. This includes recognising that any lay person who comes before a lawyer is, in some sense, vulnerable – owing to the fact that the legal system and process is likely to be unfamiliar and foreign to them. Not only that, but the stress and emotional challenges associated with their specific legal problem, requires to be taken into account by legal professionals.
Communication skills are important “tools” to be added to the legal professional’s toolkit to ensure ethical and effective service delivery. In our response to the Consultation, JUSTICE explained that more work needs to be done to ensure that these communication skills are embedded in the training programmes for all new lawyers, and recognised at all levels of the professions. Otherwise, there is a risk of inconsistent standards, safeguards and service delivery across the profession. JUSTICE considers that the statement of policy on ongoing competence provides a good opportunity to “level the playing field” for legal professionals and authorised persons. It has the chance to bring the legal services sector in line with other professional sectors, whilst also scaling up standards and building public confidence in the profession.