Motion to Consider
The Grand Committee do consider the Legal Services Act 2007 (Warrant) (Approved Regulator) Regulations 2015.
Relevant document: 22nd Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments
My Lords, I shall speak also to the draft Legal Services Act 2007 (Warrant) (Licensing Authority) Regulations 2015.
By way of background, as noble Lords will know, the Legal Services Act 2007—the 2007 Act—governs the regulation of legal services in England and Wales and established a new regulatory framework for legal services. The 2007 Act enabled the widening of the legal services market to allow for different regulators to regulate legal services and for different types of legal businesses to provide those services.
The intention of the 2007 Act was to put the consumer at the heart of legal services and deliver a more effective and competitive market. It established a number of regulatory objectives which the Legal Services Board and the approved regulators must promote, including protecting and promoting the public interest and the interests of consumers, encouraging an independent, strong, diverse and effective legal profession and promoting competition in the provision of legal services by authorised persons.
The Legal Services Board was established under the 2007 Act to be the independent oversight regulator with responsibility for overseeing the approved regulators. Under the 2007 Act, approved regulators are under a duty to act in a way that is compatible with the regulatory objectives set out in the Act. Where acts or omissions of an approved regulator are likely to have an adverse impact on these regulatory objectives, the LSB has a range of enforcement powers that it can exercise, including issuing performance targets and directions, public censure and imposing financial penalties.
Where an approved regulator’s acts or omissions cannot be adequately addressed by these other enforcement powers the LSB can, in appropriate cases, issue an intervention direction providing for certain functions of the approved regulator to be exercised by the LSB or a person nominated by it; or it can recommend to the Lord Chancellor that he cancel the approved regulator’s designation. Similarly, the LSB may recommend that the Lord Chancellor cancel an approved regulator’s designation as a licensing authority in relation to one or more reserved legal activities, but only if it is satisfied that it cannot address the issue through its other enforcement powers. This is intended to ensure that the power to issue an intervention direction or to cancel a designation remains reserved for the most serious or persistent infractions.
Where an intervention direction is made under Section 41 of the 2007 Act or an approved regulator’s designation is cancelled under Section 45, the LSB or a new regulator will assume some or all of the approved regulator’s functions. In order to provide continuity of regulation in these circumstances, the LSB, or a person nominated by it, can apply for a search warrant for the approved regulator’s premises under Sections 42 or 48, as appropriate.
Section 79 makes similar provision for licensing authorities to that made by Section 48 for approved regulators, in that it makes provision for search warrants which may be issued following the cancellation of a designation. It applies where a body has had its designation as a licensing authority cancelled, either automatically under Section 75 of the Act because its designation as an approved regulator has been cancelled under Section 45, or by an order made by the Lord Chancellor under Section 76 of the Act.
The 2007 Act permits the LSB to apply for a warrant in certain circumstances authorising it to enter and search the premises of an approved regulator or licensing authority and take possession of any written or electronic records found on the premises. There are two separate powers under the 2007 Act which are set out in Sections 42 and 48. These allow search warrants to be issued for an approved regulator’s premises, and one power in Section 79 which allows search warrants to be issued for a licensing authority’s premises. Regulations must be made by the Lord Chancellor under each of those three sections specifying further matters which a judge or justice of the peace must be satisfied of or have regard to before issuing a warrant, and also regulating the exercise of a power conferred by the warrant. That is the purpose of these two sets of regulations before the Committee, one of which relates to approved regulator warrants and one to licensing authority warrants.
The intention in exercising a warrant under Sections 42, 48 or 79 will be to provide continuity of regulation in specific circumstances of regulatory failure by an approved regulator or licensing authority. If both sets of these regulations come into force, they will enable the LSB or a person appointed by it to apply for warrants as part of its enforcement strategy. As required under the 2007 Act, the Lord Chancellor has also formally consulted the LSB about the making of these regulations.
Finally, I regret to say that there is a small error in the version of the approved regulator regulations before the House—the result of a computer glitch. In Regulation 1(2) the paragraph lettering is incorrect in that it runs through from (a) to (g) rather than restarting for each definition. I take it that no confusion has been caused. This error will be corrected in the final “made” version of the regulations.
In conclusion, these regulations enable the LSB or a person appointed by it to apply for a warrant as part of its enforcement strategy, enabling the LSB to assume effectively the functions of the relevant regulator. Overall, this has the potential to act as a deterrent against poor regulation, to improve the standard of regulatory practice and to strengthen the LSB’s regulatory powers, leading to greater consistency and better protections for consumers. I commend both sets of regulations to the Committee and beg to move.
My Lords, I can say at the outset that we are not opposing either of these two sets of regulations. As the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, has outlined for the Grand Committee, the Legal Services Act 2007 permits the Legal Services Board to apply for a warrant in certain circumstances authorising it to enter and search the premises of an approved regulator or licensing authority. The Lord Chancellor must make regulations specifying further matters which a judge or justice of the peace must be satisfied of, or have regard to, before issuing a warrant and regulating the exercise of a power conferred by a warrant.
I am aware from the guidance that a previous draft of these regulations was originally laid in February 2010 and then withdrawn. That was at the end of the last Parliament and here we are, five years and one month later at the end of this Parliament, with another set of regulations that we are seeking to put through. Quite a lot of time has elapsed. I understand and accept that sometimes when things are drafted, that can highlight problems and defects, but it would be useful if in his response the noble Lord could outline in some detail why have we waited so long for these regulations to be brought back. We are literally in the last few days of this Parliament. It would also be helpful if he could say something about the nature of the problems which have been uncovered.
In looking at the regulations and the helpful Explanatory Memorandum, it appears to me that they have been quite tightly drawn up to limit the circumstances in which they can be used and to ensure that the issue of these warrants is a matter of last resort. That seems right and sensible to me. However, is the noble Lord satisfied that the regulations are proportionate and strike the right balance? Have any problems been caused to the Legal Services Board in exercising its regulatory duties over the past few years by not having these powers? If he is satisfied that there are no problems, perhaps he would inform the Committee of how he has come to that conclusion. With those points, I am happy to support the regulations.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for his consideration of these regulations and for his observations in general about them. He asked why there has been effectively a delay in these matters and also asked me to say a little more about whether I was satisfied with the various safeguards which exist.
In a sense both those questions have a common answer, which is that these powers are very much ones of last resort. They follow from the Act; Parliament expressed the view that there should be this residuary power but the circumstances in which the super-regulator—if one can call it that—would actually wish to step into the shoes of the regulator are very hard to foresee. I believe Parliament felt that there should be that power at least, hence the existence of the regulations. This is not, I think, something the absence of which has caused the LSB any difficulty at all in the delay during the five years since the replacement regulations were drafted.
The powers are not to be used, of course, until after all the other LSB powers have been utilised, and the noble Lord and the Committee will realise that there are a range of other powers short of these last-resort powers which the LSB can exercise. It was in those circumstances that these powers were prioritised below other more immediately required orders such as those required in the implementation of the Act and subsequently those recommended by the LSB. As outlined in the memorandum accompanying the regulations, we have produced 11 other legal services statutory instruments since 2013, which perhaps gives the Committee an idea of the scale of recent work. We have therefore prioritised our resources.
Progress on the approved regulator draft has continued steadily. For example we have consulted twice on the content of the regulations with the stakeholders—and there are a considerable number of stakeholders—who will be affected by them. We have made numerous changes as a result and taken their comments into account. The licensing authority regulations have also been drafted during this period allowing the two sets of regulations to be consulted on and progress through Parliament together, given how similar they are. I think the noble Lord will understand that regulators were likely to express a view as to whether the super-regulator should be allowed these powers and if so the appropriate restrictions on them. There is perhaps, one might say, a healthy tension between the interests of the regulators and the super-regulator, which, I think, provides some explanation.
In terms of the safeguards, the word “necessary” or “desirable” is an important one for the exercise of a regulatory function. A judicial officer must be satisfied before issuing a warrant. Specifically, the regulations allow a judicial officer to issue a warrant only if satisfied that the LSB has made reasonable attempts to obtain the records sought by other means. This would be likely to result in the records being removed, hidden, tampered with or destroyed. There is also provision to prevent repeat applications where another of the same substance was refused. There are other safeguards providing for the return of seized documents. A key safeguard is that a warrant may not be used to take possession of or copy records subject to legal professional privilege. That matter was drawn to the attention of the regulators by the Bar Standards Board as a matter of importance and that finds its way into the regulations, as the noble Lord will have seen. Any such record which is taken or copied in error must be returned.
These regulations were drafted in consultation with the approved regulators, whose suggestions were incorporated in the way that I have indicated to achieve the desired balance. I hope I can satisfy the Committee that there are these appropriate safeguards. I do not think it could be said that the LSB is champing at the bit to exercise these regulations—it is unlikely it will do so—but Parliament has envisaged that it should have its power. By providing these regulations, albeit they have taken a little time to produce, we are acting in a way that is faithful to Parliament’s intention. In those circumstances, I hope the regulations can be approved.