For several years, observers of the UK legal sector had thought that liberalisation in the industry would lead to so-called ‘Tesco law’ – but it turns out that they meant ‘The Co-operative law’ instead.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) last week named The Co-operative Legal Services – a division of the group that also includes a supermarket chain, a bank and a travel agency – as the first consumer brand licensed to sell legal solutions as an alternative business structure (ABS). The company joins smaller practices Lawbridge Solicitors and John Welch & Stammers amongst the first set of firms to receive ABS status from the SRA. The UK’s first-ever ABS – Premier Property Lawyers – was ratified in October last year by the Council for Licensed Conveyancers.
Eddie Ryan, director of The Co-operative Legal Services, said: ‘When the Legal Services Act was first drafted, it was envisaged that its enactment would enable consumer brands to enter the closed world of legal services, so this is an historic occasion – not only for The Co-operative, but for all customers needing access to legal services in the UK.’ Ryan said that The Co-operative, whose current marketing slogan is “good for everyone” was ‘committed to playing a leading role’ in the new era by offering ‘straightforward, value-for-money’ services, backed by an ethos of social responsibility. With the aid of its new status, the company intends to widen its portfolio of offerings from personal injury and probate by moving into the family law market later this year.
To mark the occasion of The Co-operative Legal Services’ ABS award, Justice minister Jonathan Djanogly visited the firm’s Bristol offices. Congratulating staff, he said that the firm’s licence represented a ‘huge milestone’ for the UK legal sector, adding: ‘ABSs introduce more competition in the marketplace, delivering competitive pricing, higher standards of product and more choice for the consumer.’
In Djanogly’s view, those benefits will enhance the entire sector. ‘Our UK legal services are unrivalled around the world,’ he said, ‘and these changes will allow them to reach new heights, as solicitors’ firms develop new markets, seek external investment and join up with other businesses to offer different products to consumers and provide opportunities for growth.’
SRA chief executive Antony Townsend said: ‘The arrival of ABS should foster a more flexible and innovative market for legal services. By stimulating competition and encouraging innovation, consumers’ experiences should enjoy a major boost.’
Law Society president John Wotton also hailed the developments. ‘The Co-operative Group is a well known brand on the high street, with a substantial profile and a strong reputation for ethical business. I’d like to welcome The Co-operative Legal Services into the Law Society fold. Lawbridge Solicitors and John Welch & Stammers are existing law firms who have taken an innovative step in adopting new ownership structures. I look forward to working with all three practices, and assure them – and those whose ABS applications are still being considered – that the full range of Law Society support and services is open to them.’