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5 October 2010

Exclusive: consumer panel puts plans for comparison website standards on ice

The Legal Services Consumer Panel has had to put on ice plans to develop best practice standards for legal comparison websites, Legal Futures has learned.

The work formed part of the panel’s 2010-11 workplan, published in March, but has been shelved because the panel has since been asked by the Legal Services Board (LSB) to investigate will-writing regulation. This is likely to be a time-intensive project which has forced the panel to reassess its priorities.

The panel is supported by just two members of staff and so its resources can only be stretched so far.

However, the panel believes there remains the need to define proper standards for comparison websites in the legal services market and it continues to monitor developments. The panel will return to the subject as it considers its work programme for 2011-12.

Panel chairwoman Dr Dianne Hayter said: “Having been asked by the LSB to investigate the important issue of the need to regulate will-writing companies, the panel has decided to concentrate on this in the coming period and to turn to the issue of comparison websites later. Given the weight given by the LSB to our input on referral fees, we consider that influencing their policy on current issues justifies this extra input on will writing.”

LSB research last year indicated that consumers would like to see price comparison websites in the legal market, and in its workplan the panel said it viewed such sites as “a positive development”.

But it continued: “However, in some sectors, concerns have been raised about businesses ‘gaming’ the sites and a lack of transparency about how these services operate. Regulators have needed to take a closer look in order to ensure a fair playing field and restore consumer confidence. The consumer panel is keen to ensure that the new breed of comparison websites in legal services do not fall into the same traps. We will draw up a set of good practice standards building on experience from other arenas and assess the extent to which the services meet the needs of users.”

Meanwhile, iCompareSolicitors.co.uk – which allows clients to rank and leave comments about their lawyers – is offering a free website to every firm that subscribes to its service. Founder Colin Mahoney said this would provide solicitors with “a vital and reliable source of new business.”