Motion to Consider
The Legal Services Act 2007 (Claims Management Complaints) (Fees) Regulations 2014 enable the Lord Chancellor to charge fees to regulated claims management companies to recoup the costs of the Legal Ombudsman’s work in handling complaints about these companies. Since January last year, the Legal Ombudsman has been able to consider consumer complaints against claims management companies. It is funded for this work by grant-in-aid from the Lord Chancellor, and the 2014 fees regulations enable the Lord Chancellor to recoup the costs from the companies themselves. It is right that the costs of handling such complaints fall on the claims management sector and not on the taxpayer.
The draft regulations before us amend the level of fees set out in the existing 2014 fees regulations for the financial year beginning 1 April 2016 and for subsequent years. This will ensure that the Lord Chancellor can recover the full costs of the Legal Ombudsman in dealing with complaints about the claims management industry in the 2016-17 financial year.
The Legal Ombudsman has one year’s experience of operation of the complaints scheme. During this time, the Legal Ombudsman has dealt with fewer cases requiring an ombudsman decision than expected, although the number of complaints is increasing. The number of initial consumer contacts and inquiries to the scheme has been substantially more than envisaged.
In the light of its experience so far, the Legal Ombudsman has revised downwards its estimate for the number of cases that will require ombudsman resolution during the next financial year and therefore the expected costs. However, in addition to the Legal Ombudsman’s expected costs for 2016-17 we also need to recover a shortfall in the amount invoiced for 2014-15 and 2015-16. This was the result of a greater number of market exits than was estimated in the fee model. This means that the total cost to be recovered from the market for 2016-17—around £2.3 million—remains broadly similar to that for 2015-16. Due to the contraction in the market, however, fees have had to be increased. Effectively, it is a smaller cake.
Noble Lords will be aware that a fundamental review of the regulation of claims management companies is currently taking place. The review is considering what powers and resources are required for a strengthened regulatory regime and what other reforms may be necessary, and is due to be completed in early 2016. As such, I cannot say any more about it at the present time.
The claims management sector has undoubtedly acquired a poor reputation as a result of a small number of companies engaging in poor business practices. The Legal Ombudsman provides redress for consumers of regulated claims management companies, including the potential for awards of compensation, and will continue to assist the claims management regulator in driving out poor standards and practices in the market.
I know that noble Lords welcome the fact that the Legal Ombudsman is now able to deal with complaints about claims management companies. It is therefore right that the Legal Ombudsman’s costs relating to regulated claims management complaints continue to be met by the claims management sector, in the same way that the costs relating to complaints about the legal services sector are met by that sector. I commend the draft regulations to the Committee.
My Lords, the Government are right to take action in this matter, and I certainly endorse the new arrangements that have been laid out, but it has a rather curious history. Looking at paragraph 4.2 of the Explanatory Note, I can see that it was some seven years after the passage of the 2007 Act before steps were taken to deal with this issue. The paragraph contains this rather curious sentence:
“This provision treats the designated Claims Management Regulator as an approved regulator to be levied in the same way as other approved regulators for the costs of the Legal Ombudsman”.
It goes on to say:
“However, there is currently no designated Claims Management Regulator and the function is fulfilled by the Secretary of State”.
One might have thought that he had more important things to do. Obviously, Mr Gove and his predecessor will not have been involved in this personally, but it is a curious situation that for some years there apparently was no functioning regulator in post.
The position appears to be, as the Minister has indicated, that a £500,000 shortfall has occurred in a very short period. I do not know whether he is able to indicate how many cases there were. He said that there were not many, but £500,000 is a reasonably large amount of money. It will be interesting to know how many cases there were and how many of those were from small companies, which appear to be leaving the market. But the very fact that after all these years there are clear deficiencies in how some of those providing this service are operating raises questions about the degree to which their activities are regulated in advance of the unfortunate outcome, which sometimes leads them to be subject to charges for maladministration or their conduct. Does the review to which the Minister referred encompass looking at the qualitative regulation of the industry? Should there not be a floor above which the resources of these companies should be fixed? If not, we will continue to have a situation in which, quite apart from the financial implications for the Government, people who have consulted these companies presumably are being short-changed. One wonders what has happened to valid claims that have gone astray as a result of maladministration. That side of it does not seem to be touched on at all in relation to this order, but it may be encompassed within the review. I certainly hope that that is the case, but if it is not, perhaps the Minister could undertake to look into the nature and quality of the supervision that ought to be exercised and, if necessary, what improvements should be made to what has gone on recently.
My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, about the rather curious nature of the regulatory arrangements for claims management companies. The Lord Chancellor left himself holding the baby when the original legislation was taken through. I never thought that this arrangement would last as long as it has. It is quite right that it should be subject to review. It is obviously right that the costs of dealing with what the noble Lord called the maladministration in the industry is visited upon the industry and not the taxpayer. Therefore, I support the order and the principle behind it.
The history of claims management companies has been one of things that go beyond individual complaints. There have been systemic changes to the way the legal system operates and attempts to turn it into an ambulance-chasing activity. We all have some worries about whether, in another area, the necessary referral fee bands have actually brought some of the claims management activities in-house, into some solicitors’ practices, where once they were precluded. This is a very difficult area and the regulatory problems that it generates are not just individual cases being badly dealt with but systemic weaknesses. I hope that when we dispatch this order successfully as an appropriate means of dealing with the costs arising from individual claims, we will not neglect some of the wider issues that this industry has generated.
My Lords, I am grateful for that short debate and for the contributions of the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, and the noble Lord, Lord Beith, who, I know, when he was chair of the Justice Select Committee had considerable concern, possibly in relation to the Compensation Act going back to 2006. At that time the question of claims regulations was certainly raised, with the emergence of claims management companies and the possibility that they were and would be engaging in unacceptable practices. That is a matter of concern generally to the Government.
The claims management regulation unit in Burton-on-Trent has been doing a good job but the Government are by no means complacent about this activity. The review being conducted by Carol Brady is wide-ranging and I do not want in any way to pre-empt its conclusions, but the Government are not going to lose sight of the potential dangers that this claims management activity can present. I take the noble Lord’s point about referral fees and the possibility that they might have the unintended consequence of driving claims away from lawyers towards claims management companies.
On the plus side, I think that the increased powers to fine companies have been a positive step, together with the fact that a number of the less reputable companies have left the market. There is something like half the number of claims management companies in existence that there were. This is at least some indication that the better ones are still active rather than the less reputable ones.
The wider point that both noble Lords make about claims management is valid. I hope that the review will assist; the Government are very much aware of the field and whether it is desirable in the long term that these companies should exist, as well as the need for regulation.
I am glad that there is acceptance that there is a need to recoup the costs of the Legal Ombudsman in dealing with complaints against claims management companies. The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, referred to the slightly strange hiatus evident from the Explanatory Notes. Unfortunately, I understand that there was an issue with the original legislation, whereby the existing levy in the Legal Services Act 2007 could not be used as the Secretary of State fulfilled the role of claims management regulator. This meant that additional primary legislation was needed and a suitable vehicle for this needed to be found; this was done in the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Act 2013. Following the passage of that new legislation, the Government had to consult affected parties and work to ensure that the necessary operational and financial regulations were in place. That is the explanation; it is simply an omission, effectively, which had to be regulated by the appropriate vehicle.
The noble Lord was concerned about why there was a shortfall in fees collected this year. That was a result of more companies having left the market than was estimated, as I think I indicated, with a difference between the fees calculated and the fees being charged and a higher number of exits than expected prior to the beginning of the 2015 financial year. It was not because the companies failed to pay the fees. They left for a variety of reasons but, certainly, the overall aim is to ensure that the right companies remain and there is effective regulation of those companies.
I hope that, notwithstanding the reservations that have been expressed about the length of time it took to set up this system, and notwithstanding the general concern that the Committee has about claims management companies, noble Lords will accept that there is an importance in providing the route for redress for consumers of regulated claims management companies that is provided, and that it is right that the companies should pay for the costs of complaints handling rather than the taxpayer.
I entirely endorse what the Minister has said, but the danger is that the process of finding companies works only if the companies are in existence and have resources. Therefore, it seems to me that the regulation needs to be at an earlier stage to ensure that they do not carry on business unless they can demonstrate that they have the financial capacity to meet their liabilities. I assume—but it would be good to have the confirmation, if not today than perhaps subsequently—that that element is being considered as part of the review to which the Minister referred.
I am grateful for that, and I understand the noble Lord’s concern about having prior approval rather than waiting for things to go wrong; I think that is effectively what he is saying. I do not want to pre-empt what is in the wide-ranging report. Of course, there are a number of ways of ensuring that, including the possibility of professional indemnity insurance, or something of that sort. But I accept his point that it is important that there is protection before, rather than after, the event. I do not undertake that the review will cover that point, but it is none the less a valid concern.